This is a wonderful time to learn to identify this star, even though you might have to squint a bit to see it in the glare of tonight’s moon. These two luminaries should be up by nightfall or early evening. If you can see the moon, but not Aldebaran, try placing your finger over the moon to seek out the star.
Aldebaran is a bright reddish star, a good star to come to know. Did you know that Aldebaran is also a former pole star? It’s true, and it’s a fascinating story.
Many people know that Polaris is the present-day North Star, but few know that Aldebaran reigned as the North Star some 450,000 years ago.
What’s more, Aldebaran appeared several times brighter in the sky then than it does now. Plus – 450,000 years ago – Aldebaran shone very close to the very bright star Capella on the sky’s dome. In that distant past, these two brilliant stars served as a double pole star in the astronomical year -447,890 (447,891 B.C.).
At this point, we should probably insert a note about astronomical dating. In ancient times, there was no zero year, so the year A.D. 1 followed the year 1 B.C. However, present-day astronomical calculating is made simpler by equating the astronomical year 0 with the year 1 B.C. Thus, the astronomical year -1 corresponds to 2 B.C. and the astronomical year -2 corresponds to 3 B.C. And so on …
But back to Aldebaran and Capella as dual pole stars. The identity of the pole star shifts over time, due to the 26,000-year cycle of precession. To read more about that, click into this article about Thuban, another former pole star.
Still, how can it be, you might wonder, that the stars Aldebaran and Capella were once so near each other on the sky’s dome? They’re not especially close together now. Aren’t the stars essentially fixed relative to one another? The answer is that, yes, on the scale of a human lifespan, the stars are essentially fixed. But the stars are actually moving through space, in orbit around the center of the galaxy. In our solar system, galaxy, and universe … everything is always moving. So the sky looked different hundreds of thousands of years ago than it does today.
So watch for Aldebaran near the moon tonight, and think back to 450,000 years ago, when Aldebaran and Capella teamed up together to serve as Earth’s double north pole star!*
*Source: Page 363 of “Mathematical Astronomy Morsels V” by Jean Meeus
Bottom line: Will you see the red star Aldebaran – Eye of the Bull in Taurus – in the moon’s glare tonight? More here, including the story of Aldebaran when it joined with another bright star, Capella, to appear as a double pole star.
Bruce McClure has served as lead writer for EarthSky's popular Tonight pages since 2004. He's a sundial aficionado, whose love for the heavens has taken him to Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and sailing in the North Atlantic, where he earned his celestial navigation certificate through the School of Ocean Sailing and Navigation. He also writes and hosts public astronomy programs and planetarium programs in and around his home in upstate New York.