Friday, October 01, 2004

Taurus Marks Return of Fall

Taurus Marks Return of Fall
by Dave Adalian

Astronomers mark the Valley’s slow decent into autumn not by the colors of the leaves and a drop in the mercury alone. They watch too for the return of Taurus the Bull to the night sky.

This compact constellation of the Zodiac rises in the east just after sunset during October, bringing a dazzling string of astronomical delights as it stampedes over the horizon.

First to rise is the Pleiades, those famous Seven Sisters the Japanese call Subaru. This compact group of stars--an open cluster some 380 light years distant--dazzles the eye with hot, white stars that shine and twinkle like diamonds through the Valley haze of walnut dust and cotton defoliant.

From the city the best one can hope to see are the six brightest stars of the Pleiades in a shape some people mistake for the much larger Little Dipper of Ursa Minor in the north. A dark night in the countryside will push that number to about nine, while getting above the smog will produce as many as a dozen for the naked eye when the Moon is new.

In total, the cluster contains some 500 stars, many of which can be seen in a backyard telescope.

Below the Sisters and rising about an hour later is Taurus’s less famous open cluster, the Hyades. This V-shaped cluster is perhaps the closest one to Earth at 150 light years distant. The Hyades, another group of sisters from Greek mythology who died from grief for their brother Hyas, represent the face of Taurus.

At the end of the eastern arm of the V is the bright red star Aldebaran, which marks the angry, bloodshot eye of the charging bull. While Aldebaran appears to be part of the Hyades cluster it is actually less than half the distance at just 60 light years.

Telescopes reveal another treasure of Taurus lost to those with unaided eyes. Rising after the Hyades comes the Crab Nebula, the remains of an exploded star that dazzled during the nights of 1054 A.D. The event was reported by Chinese astronomers, and natives of the American Southwest depicted it on canyon walls.

Taurus holds one last charm for those who scan the autumn night--a minor meteor shower. The Northern Taurids begin the second week of October and last through the start of December, displaying a handful of bright shooting stars every hour from between the horns of the bull.


This column originally appeared in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta in October 2004.