Look Up Tonight! Here's How to Find the Beehive in Space

Located in the constellation Cancer, the Beehive Cluster is composed of about 1000 stars. Two gas-giant planets in the cluster are highlighted above. Image Credit: Stuart Heggie via NASA

There is a beehive in space, and tonight, November 18, the Moon will help you find it. Are you in?

You’re going to need a pair of binoculars. Around 11:59 p.m. EST, look east. You’ll see a giant disc in the sky marked with mysterious shadows that appear to be dark oceans. That is the Moon. Look a little to the left, and a little bit down, and for the first time in your life, you’ll probably see the constellation Cancer. Now we’re getting somewhere.

Cancer is the ninja of constellations. It’s hard to find, but when the skies are dark and clear and you manage to spot it, lots of things happen very quickly: First, you pat yourself on the back, because it is comprised only of a few faint stars, including one called Arkushanangarushashutu, which is Babylonian for “southeast star in the Crab.” Second, you wonder how the ancients got a crab out of that (it looks a lot more like a wishbone or Y). Third, you notice what appears to be a vague haze or cloud within its little crab body.

That’s what we’re after tonight! Within the crab is not a smear, but rather, a grouping of a thousand stars. (You won’t see that many.) This is the Beehive Cluster, also called Praesepe. It is an “open cluster”—that is, a collection of stars formed from the same stellar nursery. (Praesepe is Latin for “manger.”) Some of the stars in the Beehive are Sun-like with Jupiter-like gas giants orbiting them. You can see two of these planets, Pr0201b and Pr 0211b, highlighted in the top image—they are, NASA says, "the first b's in the Beehive." (You definitely won’t see planets tonight.)

Who first put the beehive on the map? The father of modern science himself, Galileo, who spied it with his paper telescope. That’s why you need binoculars tonight: Because unless you were born on Krypton, you cannot resolve these stars with the naked eye. That you need only a decent set of binoculars makes this a perfect celestial starter kit. You can enjoy the experience without figuring out how to aim and focus a telescope in the freezing night air (or, thanks to climate change, in the sweltering, mosquito-dense night air).

So what can you expect? Galileo saw 40 stars in the cluster. Forty might not seem all that special, but it’s an awful lot for such a small space, and if you can see even a quarter of that, you’ll be glad you took the time. The cluster’s stars—some small and dim, some larger and less dim—come together to form the appearance of an electric, 3D image of swarming bees. (They won’t be moving, though, and if they are, run.)

The usual terms and conditions apply. You will need to be in an area of very little light pollution. Cancer is really hard to see, and if you’re competing against the floodlights of a Walmart parking lot, you may as well save yourself the trouble and call it an early night. While the position of the waning gibbous Moon will help you locate the beehive, the light reflecting off it won’t, but we have to play the hand we’re dealt. Here’s the good news: Your binoculars are likely similar in power to Galileo’s telescope. They might even be better. So get out there and give it a try. If you can find the Moon, you can find a star cluster. And if you can’t, the Moon is reason enough to look up tonight. You really can’t lose.

How Often Is 'Once in a Blue Moon'? Let Neil deGrasse Tyson Explain

From “lit” to “I can’t even,” lots of colloquialisms make no sense. But not all confusing phrases stem from Millennial mouths. Take, for example, “once in a blue moon”—an expression you’ve likely heard uttered by teachers, parents, newscasters, and even scientists. This term is often used to describe a rare phenomenon—but why?

Even StarTalk Radio host Neil deGrasse Tyson doesn’t know for sure. “I have no idea why a blue moon is called a blue moon,” he tells Mashable. “There is nothing blue about it at all.”

A blue moon is the second full moon to appear in a single calendar month. Astronomy dictates that two full moons can technically occur in one month, so long as the first moon rises early in the month and the second appears around the 30th or 31st. This type of phenomenon occurs every couple years or so. So taken literally, “Once in a blue moon” must mean "every few years"—even if the term itself is often used to describe something that’s even more rare.

[h/t Mashable]

Neutron Star Collision Sheds Light on the Strange Matter That Weighs a Billion Tons Per Teaspoon
Two neutron stars collide.
Two neutron stars collide.

Neutron stars are among the many mysteries of the universe scientists are working to unravel. The celestial bodies are incredibly dense, and their dramatic deaths are one of the main sources of the universe’s gold. But beyond that, not much is known about neutron stars, not even their size or what they’re made of. A new stellar collision reported earlier this year may shed light on the physics of these unusual objects.

As Science News reports, the collision of two neutron stars—the remaining cores of massive stars that have collapsed—were observed via light from gravitational waves. When the two small stars crossed paths, they merged to create one large object. The new star collapsed shortly after it formed, but exactly how long it took to perish reveals keys details of its size and makeup.

One thing scientists know about neutron stars is that they’re really, really dense. When stars become too big to support their own mass, they collapse, compressing their electrons and protons together into neutrons. The resulting neutron star fits all that matter into a tight space—scientists estimate that one teaspoon of the stuff inside a neutron star would weigh a billion tons.

This type of matter is impossible to recreate and study on Earth, but scientists have come up with a few theories as to its specific properties. One is that neutron stars are soft and yielding like stellar Play-Doh. Another school of thought posits that the stars are rigid and equipped to stand up to extreme pressure.

According to simulations, a soft neutron star would take less time to collapse than a hard star because they’re smaller. During the recently recorded event, astronomers observed a brief flash of light between the neutron stars’ collision and collapse. This indicates that a new spinning star, held together by the speed of its rotation, existed for a few milliseconds rather than collapsing immediately and vanishing into a black hole. This supports the hard neutron star theory.

Armed with a clearer idea of the star’s composition, scientists can now put constraints on their size range. One group of researchers pegged the smallest possible size for a neutron star with 60 percent more mass than our sun at 13.3 miles across. At the other end of the spectrum, scientists are determining that the biggest neutron stars become smaller rather than larger. In the collision, a larger star would have survived hours or potentially days, supported by its own heft, before collapsing. Its short existence suggests it wasn’t so huge.

Astronomers now know more about neutron stars than ever before, but their mysterious nature is still far from being fully understood. The matter at their core, whether free-floating quarks or subatomic particles made from heavier quarks, could change all of the equations that have been written up to this point. Astronomers will continue to search the skies for clues that demystify the strange objects.

[h/t Science News]


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