Moon Tides And Celestial Beekeeping

A high tide yesterday in Hale village in England flooded area farmland. Credit: Vincent Phillips

Some of you got to see the huge moon over the weekend. Others like Vincent Phillips, who lives in England,  had a more physical experience. Thanks to lunar perigee, he may have gotten his shoes soaked while photographing farmland near Hale village inundated by waters from high tide.

You’ll recall that at new and full moon, the sun, moon and Earth are all in a line. The combined gravity of sun and moon acting on the Earth produces sets of higher and lower tides than normal. Combine that with the full moon’s closer-than-usual approach to our planet and that farm field became a temporary lake due to unusually high tides.

Next month’s full moon on April 17 will be nearly as close as the one this weekend – only 938 miles farther away. If you live near the sea, best to keep your boots handy.

Start with easy-to-spot Sirius in the south and reach your fist out to the sky. Procyon is three fists above Sirius. From there, look about two fists further up to find Pollux. The Beehive cluster is a little more than a fist to the lower left of Pollux. This map shows the sky facing south around 9 o'clock. Created with Stellarium

The big, bad moon is now rising well after 10 o’clock and dark skies are with us once again. Have you paid a visit to one of the season’s coolest star clusters, the Beehive, yet?

This photo, taken through a telephoto lens, gives you an idea of what the Beehive looks like through binoculars. Photo: Bob King

From a reasonably dark sky, this cluster looks like a fuzzy spot with the naked eye smack in the middle of the faint constellation Cancer the Crab.

You can find it by starting at the dazzling Sirius in the south. Use your fist to work your way all the way up to the Gemini twins Pollux and Castor high in the southern sky.

Once there, look a little more than one fist to the left and below Pollux for a fuzzy spot or glow. That’s the Beehive. While your eyes alone can’t see individual stars in the cluster – they’re too faint and too close together – binoculars will show many.

The cluster, also known as M44 in Charles Messier’s catalog, measures about 1 1/2 degrees across or some three times larger than the full moon. You’ll see more stars in a telescope, but higher magnifications spread the cluster out and dilute its beauty. The best view is in low power 7x to 10x binoculars.

All told, the Beehive contains more than a thousand stars, several dozen of which are visible in binoculars. Photo: Bob King

The Beehive got its name because of its resemblance to a swarm of bees. This particular swarm is one of many star clusters in our Milky Way and located 580 light years away. It measures 10 light light years across or about twice the distance to the Alpha Centauri star system, the nearest beyond the sun.

Before Galileo looked at the cluster through his telescope, it was thought to be a little cloud or nebula. As with the Milky Way, Galileo discovered that cluster was only one of many fuzzy objects masquerading as clouds. Learning their true nature took two carefully ground lenses placed at opposite ends of a tube and the curiosity to point this deceptively simple instrument skyward.