It is usually not a good idea to be in front of a Taurus. That only happened to me once on a track. He showed his horns nicely and scratched his front hoof on the ground as my friends and I crawled up an embankment! Fortunately, the farmer came by and led him away. Much safer, but no less amazing in other ways, is to chase the bull in the night sky.
The constellation Taurus the Taurus is located directly above Orion, exactly at the end of January or beginning of February around 9 p.m. in the south. This region of the sky has many fascinating features that can be enjoyed without a telescope and is a real treat with binoculars.
Its most prominent star is the fiery red Aldebaran, usually thought of as the bull’s eye. This is not to be confused with the bright red-orange Betelgeuse in the upper left corner of the familiar Orion star pattern. Aldebaran is just a stone’s throw from the top right of Orion. Aldebaran is a massive red supergiant star 65 light years away. It’s so big, if it replaced the sun, its surface would almost reach Mercury’s orbit – not good for Mercury – but I said “if”.
Not only is Aldebaran easy to identify because of its size and hue, it is located at the end of a remarkable, V-shaped open cluster, the Hyades. This is the closest and largest visible star cluster. In the southern sky, the “V” is on the side and marks the head of the bull. Aldebaran is not part of this star cluster; it happens to be positioned so that it appears like part of the V-pattern, but the star is much closer (and therefore brighter to our eyes) than any of the Hyadine stars (which are 151 light years away).
All the stars of the night rise in the east and set in the west, like the sun and moon, because the earth on which we ride turns from west to east. It seems that the bull of heaven is crossing the sky backwards – tail first! This is very different from any earthly bull I know.
In the upper left of the Hyades there is an amazing star cluster of the Pleiades, bright and compact. This is certainly a favorite of mine and hands down most of the “backyard astronomers”. The Pleiades can be viewed as the tip of one of the bull’s horns. This cluster is 444 light years away from here.
To the left (east) of Aldebaran and the Hyades are two well visible stars, one higher up than the other, just above Orion. Zeta Tauri is the lower and Beta Tauri is the higher. Beta was introduced as the tip of the bull’s other horn, and Zeta, his nose, forms a long triangle with the Hyades “V”.
However, other depictions connect the stars differently, making Zeta Beta the tips of the two horns. The Pleiades then mark a shoulder. Weaker stars in the bull to the right (west) of the Hyades are used to mark either the forelegs or the hindquarters of the bull.
The stars themselves, large gas balls that shine through nuclear fusion and at very different distances, know nothing of our imaginative names or patterns with which we can remember them and enjoy them all the more. A star trekking astronaut traveling thousands of light years would never recognize our familiar constellations and might want to make his own.
Beta Tauri, commonly known as Elnath, is divided into representations of the Auriga the Chariot Driver constellation, making Elnath one of the stars of the pattern. The auriga discussed in the last column is in the upper left of the Taurus and is highlighted by the bright yellow star Capella (almost noon at this time of year, when viewed from the north).
Taurus is along the ecliptic, the imaginary line in the sky that the sun follows, and the moon and large planets do just that.
In very rare cases, a constellation can be temporarily supplemented with a new star. It’s not a planet just crossing each other, but an actual star that was invisible to the naked eye and suddenly burst into brilliance. This could be a “nova” that flares up and fades and flares up again. Then there is the extremely rare supernova, when a star blows itself to pieces.
This happened in Taurus the Bull in 1054. The telescope had not yet been invented, but astronomers of the time did not need one to see it. The unexpected star was first noticed in July 1054 and remained visible for almost two years. At its peak it was bright enough to be seen in daylight, an estimated -6. This is much brighter than Venus, which exceeds size -4 as it orbits the sun.
Certain recordings of the supernova are known from Chinese, Japanese, and Islamic stargazers. No specific record has been found from Europe where the so-called dark age was in progress. A pictograph of ancient New Mexico puebloan culture may show the unusual star among its carvings.
Very close to Zeta Tauri (one degree away) is the remainder of the 1054 explosion. What remains is a cloud of dust ejected from the explosion and visible as a hazy mist. The slowly expanding cloud is already six light years in diameter. It’s bright enough to catch with binoculars on a dark night. A small or medium-sized telescope shows its shape, which reminds me of a baby’s prey. Nicknamed the Crab Nebula, the catalog is M1. The crab is 6,523 light years away.
The last quarter moon is on February 4th. This week you will catch the planet Mercury at twilight very deep in the southwest.
Keep looking to the sky!
Peter Becker is the Editor-in-Chief at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at [email protected] Please indicate in which newspaper or on which website you read this column.