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M44, The Beehive Cluster in Cancer

TargetTypeR. A.Dec.ConstellationMagnitudeSize
M44 (NGC 2632)Open Cluster08h 40m 24s+19° 40′ 00″Cancer+3.170.0 arcmin

Overview

The Beehive Cluster, also known as Praesepe, is unusual in that it is brighter than any of the stars in its home constellation. Easily seen with the naked eye, M44 is a simple challenge to find and looks wonderful even in a relatively small telescope. In fact, using a lower power magnification and larger field of view will deliver some of the most beautiful views you can capture of this cluster.

The brightness of this cluster means that we’ve known about it for centuries, if not longer, so there is no discoverer of it. Messier observed it in March 1769 and called this object, previously thought to be a nebula, what it actually is: a cluster of stars.

It is visible to the naked eye and one of the closest clusters to us. There are around 1000 stars loosely joined in this group which is believed to be about 600 million years old. The inner core of the Beehive is only 23 light-years wide, and the whole thing is just over 500-600 light years away from us.

It is thought it was christened Praesepe – which means heap of straw – because this describes the naked eye view. John Herschel bestowed its Beehive moniker when he looked at it through a telescope and resolved individual stars. Beehives used to be made of straw and he poetically thought of the stars he’d seen as bees in the straw.

M44, the Beehive Cluster in Cancer (source)

Finder Charts

The first sky chart, from SkySafari 6, shows the view at 9 pm in the middle of March, looking south. M44 is about as high as it rises in mid-latitude skies, which is two-thirds of the way towards the zenith (overhead), you can see it as a green circle.

Begin by finding the upsdie-down ‘Y’ shape of Cancer. The easiest ways to do this are find the Sickle asterism, which looks like a back-to-front question mark, or use the bright ‘shoulder’ stars of Orion, Bellatrix and Betelgeuse. Both of these features are shown inside orange ovals on the star chart.

It will also help to find the bright stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation of Gemini. You can see it in the top right hand corner of the purple box in the chart.

Stars are shown to magnitude 5.0 but the moon and planets are not shown.

[M44-1] Begin your journey by finding the constellation of Cancer. Click for full-screen.

Start at the bright star Pollux and imagine a line connecting it to Regulus, the bright star at the bottom of the Sickle. This line passes through the constellation of Cancer, immediately above a star called Asellus Borealis.

Under a dark sky, you should already be able to see the ethereal glow of this cluster with the naked eye. Your magnifying finderscope or binoculars will make it very apparent.

[M44-2] The Beehive is below the middle of the line joining Regulus and Pollux. Click for full-screen.

Stars in this third and final chart are shown to magnitude 7.0 and we can already see individual stars within the cluster inside the green circle.

[M44-3] As one of the brightest clusters in the night sky, M44 is easy to find. Click for full-screen.

We’re now ready to investigate this cluster in more detail.

Individual Telescope Views

The following views will help you find M44 in different telescope types by presenting the images as your telescope will show them. The first image is with a black sky and white stars, the second picture is the same image but presented in inverse monochrome. Black stars on a white background is often easier to use at the telescope. Each image can be clicked on for a full-screen version. The stars are shown to magnitude 10.0 and the stars Asellus Borealis and Australis are shown in each chart.

Upright View – This is what your eyes see unaided and through a reflex or red-dot finderscope

[M44-4]
[M44-5]

Upside-down view – This is what reflectors and magnifying finders show, and refractors / Cassegrains without a star diagonal

[M44-6]
[M44-7]

Mirrored View – Refractors and Cassegrain models with a star diagonal show this view

[M44-8]
[M44-9]

Observation

Use low power to observe the cluster itself as this gives a wider field of view. You should be able to squeeze the whole object into a single view, which is very impressive when spied for the first time. It isn’t difficult to see why the name ‘The Beehive’ popped into existence to describe it.

A smaller scope will show up to 80 stars, some as bright as magnitude six, and many more shining at magnitudes 7 and 8. You can, of course, see more detail in a more powerful scope, but your window will be smaller resulting in a less impressive view. The cluster contains mostly blue stars but some of the brighter ones appear to be more orange.

What you should also quickly notice is that there are a good number of double stars in the field. As many as one in five of this cluster’s stars are doubles!

Larger apertures bring in more light and show us fainter stars. Expect to spy 200 stars when you have the power to resolve to magnitude 14.


PDFs for Printing

Each of the star maps above is reproduced as a pdf below. Each star map has a number in [square brackets] beneath it which corresponds to the file number below. If you want image [M44-1], for example, click the ‘download’ button next to it below and you’ll be able to open it as a printable pdf.

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