Taurus the Bull
Taurus is a bull, well half of a bull anyway. The front half. Actually mostly the head, with a shiny red eye. I think he’s been drinking. He’s charging Orion who appears to be perfectly prepared to defend himself from the assault. Orion also appears to have lost his pants but we don’t talk about that.
The first thing you notice about Taurus is the “V” shape of the bull’s face, and the small cluster of bright blue stars in his shoulder known as the Pleiades or M45. The Pleiades is an “open cluster” which implies that the stars of that society are free to leave, and not a bunch of iron curtain communists like some other stars I could mention.
Every star gazer in every culture throughout time has had some weird story they wanted to tell you about the Pleiades. The Japanese call it “Subaru” which is also the name of a car. The logo of the car is six little stars but it isn’t nearly as awesome in binoculars as the real thing.
The Pleiades was especially important to the high civilization tribes of the Americas, the Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Incas. These tribes placed heavy emphasis on the movement and position of the Pleiades when arranging their social calendar and some of their more sacred shit, like stabbing people.
The Western Mono tribe of central California call the Pleiades “The six wives who ate wild onions.” The six wives all went out together to get groceries one day without male supervision, and discovered some onions just growing wild out there in the woods for the taking. The women tried the free sample and found the onions were downright addicting. They pigged-out on all the onions and headed back to Monotown. Back there they went into their teepees, actually the people of this tribe lived in something more like a wikiup which is a sort of small primitive pool cabana.
Anyway their husbands asked some of the usual husband stuff like “Where’s my onion sammich?” Suddenly it became obvious that each wife’s breath smelled like they had eaten a bunch of dirty socks. The husbands began to wonder if maybe not only was there no dinner, but that the women folk had neglected to take the laundry down to the river and beat it with rocks. That was the last straw, the women were thrown out of their huts. It was so unfair. So the wives said “You don’t even wear socks!” and went up into the sky to live, in Taurus obviously. The dumb-ass husbands followed after them to apologize but they have never quite been able to catch up to them. The husbands are now the “V” shape, which is another freedom-loving society of stars called the Hyades.
The Pleiades are a good target for your telescope. There are hundreds of stars in the cluster. Some people claim to have seen as many as fourteen with the naked eye. They’re lying. It looks great in binoculars though. The blue dust streaks seen in photographs are not bright enough to be seen with a telescope, not gonna happen, but they’re fairly easy to capture as far as astrophotography goes. That dust is considered a sign of the cluster’s youth. Young hot stars tend to clean up and clear out the dust from their proximity quickly. These stars just haven’t had time to get around to that. The wives never were known for their love of house work.
At the front of the Hyades, right in the middle of Taurus, is the bull’s eye, which seems like a good name for something in the middle of something. If I was Orion I would aim there. The star’s name is Aldebaran and for those of you who don’t speak ancient Arabic, Aldebaran means “The” debaran.
After you’ve saturated yourself with all that young hot desperate housewife onion love, you are going to want see the other extreme result of stellar evolution, a supernova remnant. It’s the Crab Nebula which is M1, first on the old M list. You’ll have to become a real star hopper to get this one but don’t worry, it’s an easy hop. Just aim your scope at the star on the tip of the bull’s southern horn. After you locate the star, move your scope north just a skosh, whoa not that much! Now back it up… there. Stare at M1 a long time. Like a fair number of the Messier objects, in a small scope it’s a faint fuzzy patch of crap. It’s like having a bit of horse hair stuck to your glasses.
The Crab Nebula is the remnants of an old and very massive star that totally exploded and blew itself to smithereens. What you are seeing in your scope are the smithereens. When the explosion was first seen from here on planet Earth it was the 4th of July, 1054. At that time it was so bright that people could see it in the daytime. In the night it lit up about a third of the sky for several months. People probably freaked out and they must have burned a fatted calf or something because eventually it expanded and cooled and faded.
They say there are only two things worth studying in astronomy, the Crab Nebula, and everything else. One thing that makes star explosions so desirable, is that they create all the bling bling of the Universe. If not for exploding stars, almost everything we have would be soft and squishy and not very shiny at all.
Gemini the Twins
Jupiter had a couple of twin brats named Castor and Pollux although he swears that Castor was adopted. Castor is the one to the north, kicking M35 around like a soccer hooligan. M35 is your typical run of the mill open cluster of fresh-from-the-oven stars, many of them of the brighter blue persuasion. But don’t confuse M35 with NGC 2158. Don’t make that mistake. A lot of people do that because they are right there close together. NGC 2158 is also an open cluster but it is way more compact, way more distant, way more populated, and way more old. It is old enough that most of the hot blue stars have already gone kablooey. You know how those massive blue stars are, they tend to live fast and die young like James Dean.
Another showpiece in Gemini is the Eskimo Nebula. It’s a planetary nebula, the short-lived shell of expanding gas thrown off by an aging dying star. Our Sun will do this someday so we have that to look forward to. Personally I think it’s about time we started calling it the Inuit Nebula because Inuit is what they are and what they like to be called, not Eskimos. On the other hand this little guy is sometimes called the Clownface Nebula so, well, sorry Nanook, there’s nothing I can do about that.
Cancer the Crab
The Crab is not a connect-the-dots thing, unless you are trying to draw Paul Revere’s hat, the triangular one that looks like his horse stepped on it. And smack dab in the middle of this crustacean is M44, the Beehive. This is yet again one of those open lifestyle clusters. It’s a long ways away so the stars are tiny but there are about a thousand of them so it does somewhat resemble a swarm of bees, I guess.
The interesting starlore about the Beehive comes from the European dark ages. There was a time in days of yore when some zealously pious Christians attempted to rename and re-story everything in the sky to give it a biblical spin. Leo the Lion became the one that didn’t eat Daniel, and so forth. The campaign had mixed results. Most of the pagan-ish names and stories were too well ingrained and had been for thousands of years. With the Beehive they decided it would be the manger, you know, the animal dinner trough where the baby Jesus lay swaddled. The ancient Greeks had actually called it a manger first, a regular manger, not the Jesus variety, so the pope figured what the hell.
The Christians were in charge of pretty much every aspect of western culture back then, you can take that on faith, but burning a few witches and what not just wasn’t enough to get the manger moniker to totally catch on with all the everyday sinners. But get this, on either side of the dim star cluster is a bright foreground star that the Greeks called two donkeys, and the Catholics dubbed “the ox and ass” which of course are the traditional barnyard critters bracketing the nativity scene. And those names stuck! So today seasoned star hoppers talk about the whole arrangement in terms of a couple of beasts of burden guarding a swarm of insects on the back of a giant crab. That’s awesome.
Seasons of the Night