In our northern sky this month just north-west of Orion the Hunter we can clearly see the ancient constellation Taurus the Bull. In ancient Greek mythology the bull was Zeus (Jupiter) the master of gods and men, using the bull as a disguise to trick Europa who he had fallen in love with, to come with him to Crete. Seeing the majestic white bull, she climbed on its back and was swept away in the water to Crete. In the sky only the head and chest of the bull are seen as the body was swimming under water.
The distinct open cluster The Pleiades (M45) is useful in finding the constellation, it sits on the shoulder of the bull. It is the brightest, most spectacular naked eye cluster in the sky. Although it is also known as the “Seven Sisters” there are approximately 100 stars in the cluster and there is much debate on how many stars can be seen with the naked eye…how many do you see? Do you see the blue nebulosity associated with the cluster with the naked eye? Some astronomers believe this nebulosity is not related to the cluster, that the Pleiades is just passing through it. M45 is best viewed with binoculars or at low magnification with a telescope to appreciate the entire cluster, even naked eye observing is rewarding. The seven are Alcyone, the brightest star mag. 2.9, Celaeno, Mag 5.5, Electra, mag 3.7, Taygeta, mag. 4.3, Maia, mag 3.9 Asterope, mag. 5.8, Merope, mag. 4.2, and also their father Atlas, mag 3.6 and mother Pleione, mag 4.8 – 5.5. One Greek myth states that Zeus turned the sisters into doves and placed them in the sky to protect them when they were being pursued by Orion the Hunter.
The Hyades another large open cluster forms the V shape of the bulls head. In Greek mythology the Hyades were half sisters of the Pleiades. There are about 200 stars in the cluster, the brightest υ2, mag. 3.4 and its double υ1 mag. 3.8 can be seen as naked eye or binocular doubles. There are many other doubles in the Hyades, see how many you find. Binoculars are better than a telescope to observe the cluster.
Aldebaran, alpha Tauri ( α) the brightest star in the constellation is a giant reddish orange star 40 times the diameter of the sun of mag. 0.75 – 0.95. The name means “the follower” –of Pleiades – in Arabic. It marks the eye of the bull. It appears to be part of the Hyades cluster but is unrelated being only 68 ly away, the Hyades are 150 ly away.
Elnath, beta (β) “the butting one” marks one of the horns of the bull, it is a mag. 1.7 blue white giant.
Zeta (ζ) a mag. 3.0 blue giant marks the other horn and is a landmark to find the Crab Nebula
The Crab Nebula (M1) famous because it is the remnant of a supernova explosion recorded in 1054, when it shined as bright as Venus in the daytime and was observed for 23 days. It was observed by Dr John Bevis in 1731. It was discovered by Messier in 1758 while he was observing a comet and was the beginning of his catalogue of 110 nebulous objects. Messier described it as “a Nebula above the southern horn of Taurus, whitish light elongated like a candle flame”. It is mag 8 and can be seen on a clear night northwest of Zeta with 7 X 35 binoculars or appears as a wisp of nebulosity in small telescopes. In the centre of the nebula a pulsar, the remains of the mag 16 exploded star is too faint to be seen in amateur scopes.
Sources used: Collins Pocket Guide, Stars & Planets 1993; Hartung’s Astronomical Objects for Southern Telescopes, D Malin, DJ Frew; Skywatching, DH Levy. The Messier Objects, Stephen J. O’Meara; Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology, Myths of Greece and Rome, T. Bulfinch. NASA POD