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Mars Buzzes by Beehive Cluster

Stellar incubator is home to thousands of stars

Saturn and Venus have been fixtures of the early evening sky, and come Friday, the two are within half a dozen degrees of one another. By Tuesday they are barely three degrees apart low in the west-southwest immediately after sunset. Venus is so bright you may spot her while the sky is still lit. Saturn pops into view to the upper left of Venus. Both planets sink beneath the horizon within an hour of the sun, but over the coming weeks, Venus holds steady, while Saturn disappears from view.
    At the other side of darkness, Jupiter and Mars shine in the east before dawn. Jupiter rises around 2am and outshines any star. A couple hours later, much fainter Mars rises far to Jupiter’s lower left.
    Mars is amid the dim constellation Cancer, but with the waxing moon absent from pre-dawn skies until mid-week, its simple X shape should be easy to spot. Look for the red planet just a couple degrees to the right of the constellation’s mid-point, marked by a relatively bright but fuzzy patch of light. This is no star but the combined light from thousands of distant stars amid the Beehive Cluster. Also called Praesepe as well as the unglamorous scientific M44, it is a stellar incubator some 5,000 light years away. Seen through a pair of binoculars or even a small telescope, the cluster comes alive with individual points of light.
    Nearing the mid-point between summer and winter, the brightest star of the Summer Triangle, Vega, stands directly overhead atop the celestial zenith at sunset this week. The other points to the triangle are Deneb, to the east, and Altair, to the southeast. The Triangle is not a constellation in its own right but rather an asterism, for each star belongs to its own constellation. Vega is the led star in Lyra; Deneb is the main star in Cygnus the swan, also called the Northern Cross; Altair is the bright eye of Aquila the eagle.