Jimmy Westlake: Two clusters for Taurus

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Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

If you go

What: A public program, "Are We Alone?" by Jimmy Westlake, professor of Astronomy and Physics at CMC's Alpine Campus

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Room 300 of Bogue Hall at Colorado Mountain College

More: Telescope observing will follow the indoor program, weather permitting

— Rising in the eastern sky as the last colorful rays of sunlight fade from the mountaintops in early December is the magnificent constellation of Taurus the Bull. Taurus is one of the 12 constellations of the zodiac and, as such, serves from time to time as a backdrop for the sun, moon and planets.

The sun passes through Taurus during May and June each year, rendering the constellation unobservable for several weeks. The moon pays a monthly visit to the stars of Taurus as it waxes and wanes through its phases. The red planet, Mars, will enter the constellation of Taurus and gleam at us from between the bull's horns in late December and into the new year.

Taurus boasts the flashy orange giant star Aldebaran, the 13th brightest star in the sky, as well as two naked-eye star clusters. One cluster, called the Hyades, composes the distinctive V-shaped pattern of the bull's face, punctuated on one end by Aldebaran itself. Aldebaran marks the glaring red eyeball of this celestial bull. Follow a line upward through the three stars of Orion's Belt and it will lead you to Aldebaran. Despite appearances, Aldebaran is not a true member of the Hyades cluster, but is a much closer foreground star, superimposed on the cluster. The Hyades cluster is the closest star cluster to our solar system, lying at a distance of 151 light years. Aldebaran is less than half that distance.

Preceding the Hyades westward across the sky is Taurus' second star cluster, the Pleiades, marking the bull's shoulder. Also called the Seven Sisters and often mistaken for the Little Dipper, the Pleiades star cluster is one of the most remarkable naked eye sights in the whole sky. It lies nearly twice as far from us as the Hyades, so it appears much smaller in size. But its importance to the sky-watchers of the past cannot be overstated. Taurus' alpha star, Aldebaran, received its name from the Arabic words that mean "The Follower" because it rises shortly after the Pleiades and reverently follows them across the heavens. The Japanese name for the Pleiades is "Subaru," and a likeness of the little star cluster adorns every car of the same name.

To complete the pattern of Taurus the Bull, extend each fork of the 'V' marking his face and you will locate the two stars marking the tips of his horns. Only then can you appreciate the great size of this celestial bovine! It was here between the horns of Taurus the Bull that a star exploded into view on July 4 of the year 1054. This supernova of 1054 was visible in broad daylight for many months before it faded into obscurity. Today, when astronomers aim their telescopes at that spot in the sky, they can see the expanding debris cloud that was once a supergiant star. We know it as the famous Crab Nebula.

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