This morning, I heard a neighbor a block over start his car and drive off just after 5. He's not the only early riser. Maybe you get up early, too. If so, throw on a coat and go outside. Venus blazes in the eastern sky, and if you point binoculars at it the next few days you'll see a wonderful conjunction of the planet and one the sky's brightest star clusters, the Beehive. Also known as M44 (the 44th entry in Charles Messier's famous catalog of bright sky sights), this swarm of stellar bees buzzes at the center of the constellation Cancer the crab.
On a dark, moonless night the Beehive is visible to the naked eye as a soft, misty patch of light, but binoculars easily splinter it into several dozen individual suns. Thanks to Venus, finding it couldn't be easier. The planet continues to close in: 2.5 separated them this morning, but that distance shrinks to just 2 Sept. 12-14. All I had to do was point my 8x40s at Venus, and the Beehive glittered to the left of the planet in the same field of view.
The Beehive lies 577 light years from Earth, which means its light is 577 years old, having departed the cluster about the year 1443 around the time Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press.Long ago, Chinese skywatchers saw this misty glow as a ghost riding in a carriage that resembled a "cloud of pollen blown from willow catkins." Ancient Romans and Greeks described it as a manger, a feeding trough or box used to hold hay for animals. Two faint stars on either side of the trough, Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis, represented two donkeys munching on hay.
As Venus passes the Beehive heading east, it will be joined at the trough by the waning crescent moon on Monday, Sept. 14. That morning you'llsee all threein the same binocular field of view at dawn. The dark, earth-lit portion of the moon should look spectacular. Earthshine is twice-reflected sunlight. Sunlight reflects from Earth's clouds and oceans out to the moon which bounces it back to our eyes. If the moon were a perfect mirror, earthlight would be brilliant, but the moon's charcoal-black soil is a poor reflector of sunshine. It soaks it up and reflects only a little back, making the moon look a little spooky.
You'll see them best about 1 ½ hours before sunrise. For my location that's around 5 a.m. To find out your best time, use this easy sunrise-sunset calculator to determine local sunrise and then subtract 90 minutes. Let yourself be stung by wonder. Clear skies!