Meet Taurus the Bull in the evening sky

Taurus the Bull: Two-pronged fork made with dots and lines, small dot cluster at top right.
Taurus the Bull contains 2 star clusters that are easy to spot, the Pleiades and the Hyades.

Did you know? You can see the constellation Taurus the Bull during Northern Hemisphere fall through spring (or Southern Hemisphere spring through fall). It sits in the evening sky close to the easy-to-see constellation Orion. Basically, Taurus the Bull takes the form a two-pronged fork, with the center V-shape consisting of an actual star cluster – a family of stars in space – that we call the Hyades. The Hyades, specifically, marks the face of the Bull. The bright red star Aldebaran shines in the V, too. Accordingly, this star represents the Bull’s fiery eye. In addition, Taurus holds another famous star cluster, which we call the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. It has the shape of a tiny dipper.

Moreover, Taurus is the also radiant point for the annual Taurid meteor shower, which happens every year in November.

EarthSky’s 2022 lunar calendars are available now! Guaranteed to sell out, so get one while you can. Makes a great gift!

Locating Taurus the Bull

Taurus is a constellation of the zodiac, which means the sun, moon and planets travel through it regularly. The sun passes through the constellation Taurus from about May 14 to June 21, but you can’t see Taurus when the sun is within its borders. Instead, try looking for Taurus in the early evening sky at the opposite end of the year.

Generally speaking, Taurus is easy to find on its own because of the two star clusters, the V-shaped Hyades and small but distinctive smattering of stars of the Pleiades. But, if you orient yourself with the famous Orion, you’ll know you’re looking in the right place.

First, find Orion by looking for its three Belt stars. Orion and Taurus are next-door neighbors on the sky’s dome. Later, Taurus rises above the horizon first, so by the time Orion is risen, you can use its Belt stars to draw a line upward to find the two clusters of Taurus.

The stars of the Bull

Furthermore, Taurus is home to two particularly bright stars: Aldebaran and Elnath. Aldebaran is the easier of the two to find because it’s brighter, it’s part of the V-shape of the Hyades and it has a reddish hue.

For good reason, stargazers think of Aldebaran as the Bull’s fiery eye. Aldebaran is the 14th brightest star in the sky. Its magnitude is, notably, 0.85. Although it may look like part of the Hyades cluster, it is, actually, much closer. Aldebaran lies 65 light-years distant, while the other stars of the Hyades are about 150 light-years away.

Elnath marks the end of one of Taurus the Bull’s horns. It’s on the opposite side of the Bull’s head from Aldebaran. Elnath is the 2nd brightest star in Taurus after Aldebaran. It shines at magnitude 1.68, comparatively. Relatively nearby, Elnath lies about 130 light-years away, in the direction of the Milky Way’s anticenter.

Chart with stars in black on white showing constellations Orion and Taurus.
This star chart for Taurus the Bull shows the location of Aldebaran in the V-shaped head of Taurus the Bull. Additionally, you can see M1, the Crab Nebula, between the star Elnath (Beta Tauri) and Zeta Tauri. Chart via Wikimedia Commons.

The Crab Nebula

In addition, Taurus holds an excellent deep-sky target that binoculars or small telescope owners can spot. Messier 1, or the Crab Nebula, is what’s left of a star after it exploded in a supernova. As a result, it lit up the daytime sky in 1054 AD.

The Crab Nebula shines at magnitude 8.4. It lies near a star in Taurus named Zeta Tauri. In this case, while Elnath is the point of one of the horns, Zeta Tauri is the other.

Alt: an oval-shaped nebula with fine filamentary detail in green, red, yellow, purple, and white.
This image of the Crab Nebula is a composite of five images taken using five telescopes, spanning wavelengths from radio to x-ray. Colors represent wavelengths as follows: VLA (radio) in red; Spitzer Space Telescope (infrared) in yellow; Hubble Space Telescope (visible) in green; XMM-Newton (ultraviolet) in blue; and Chandra X-ray Observatory (X-ray) in purple. Image via JPL.
Antique etching of front half of a bull superimposed over a star chart.
View larger. | The constellation Taurus. Aldebaran marks one eye and Elnath marks the tip of one horn. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Taurus the Bull in mythology and timekeeping

According to Greek mythology, the constellation Taurus commemorates the god Zeus changing himself into a beautiful white Bull to win the affections of the Phoenician princess Europa. After Europa hopped onto the Bull’s back, the Bull swam aross the Mediterranean Sea, taking Europa all the way to the island of Crete. Later, Zeus and Europa became the parents of Minos, the legendary king of Crete.

Meanwhile, the Zuni of New Mexico used the Pleiades cluster as an agricultural calendar. When the Pleiades – which the Zuni called the Seed Stars – disappeared into the western dusk in spring, they knew it was safe to plant their seeds, as the danger of frost had passed. However, the Zuni also knew the planting must be done before the Pleiades reappeared in the east before sunrise, or immature plants would succumb to autumn frosts.

The Zuni were hardly alone in their reverence for Taurus’ Pleiades star cluster. Indeed, probably no other star formation has enjoyed such worldwide renown for timekeeping, celebration and storytelling.

Rock carving of a person with pointed hat sitting side saddle on an animal.
Europa carried by Zeus, after he was transformed into a bull. As an illustration, this is a terracotta figurine from Boeotia, ca. 470 BCE–450 BCE. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Bottom line: Taurus the Bull resides near the constellation Orion. In particular, it contains two famous star clusters that are easy to spot: the Pleiades and the Hyades.

The constellations of the zodiac

Taurus the Bull
Gemini the Twins
Cancer the Crab
Leo the Lion
Virgo the Maiden
Libra the Scales
Scorpius the Scorpion
Sagittarius the Archer
Capricornus the Sea-Goat
Aquarius the Water Bearer
Pisces the Fishes
Aries the Ram
The 13th constellation of the zodiac: Ophiuchus the Serpent Bearer

February 10, 2022

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