Astronomy For Kids: Bull Ridin’ Taurus

Now that we’ve discovered the easy constellation of Orion “The Hunter”, it’s time to take a look at what else is around! Instead of chasing down game with a bow and magic sword, this time we’ll be cowboys and rope the heavenly steer – Taurus – and take him for a ride! There won’t be any rodeo clowns to keep us safe. Just you and me and a starry night. Your mission? Locate Orion again. Now connect the three stars that make up his “belt” from left to right and keep drawing the line until you reach the next bright star. What we’re looking for is hiding just above Orion’s right shoulder…

Throughout history, almost every culture has seen this grouping of stars as a Bull. It is believed that there are cave paintings that depict Taurus and its many myths include it being everything from a giant white bull set out to capture a princess to one of the labors of Hercules. Maybe it was even one of the animals that Orion was hunting! Right now, one of the best times to find Taurus is about an hour after the Sun sets. If you live in the northern hemisphere, Taurus will be high to the south/southwest. For those near the equator, you’ll see this constellation well overhead and slightly to the west. For those who view from the southern hemisphere, Taurus will appear low to the northwest. But, no matter where you live, if your skies are bright from light pollution, you will have difficulty seeing the many faint stars that belong to the constellation of Taurus. So how do you find it? It’s easy! Look for the bright orange alpha star – Aldebaran. Now you’re looking the “Bull” right in the eye…

Giant star Aldebaran is one of the brightest of all the stars in the night sky and is about 65 light years away from Earth. At about 44 times the size of our Sun, it’s no wonder we can see it easily! If you were to look at Aldebaran with a telescope, you’d discover it is not alone – there are five other faint stars nearby, making it a multiple star system. As your eyes begin to adjust to the dark, you’ll slowly notice that Alpha Tauri is part of a V-shaped pattern of stars called an “asterism”. This marks the head of the bull and you’ve roped your first deep sky object with just your eyes!

This group of stars called the “Hyades” and ancient stories say these stars are the five daughters of Atlas. When their brother Hyas died, Atlas placed the girls in the sky to mourn. Although you cannot see all of them with just your eyes alone, there are many more stars which belong to this group… up to 400! Here on the ground, Aldebaran looks like it might be part of this open star cluster, but the true members are about 150 light years away, about two and half times further than our bright orange friend. If you look at the Hyades with binoculars, you’ll discover that many of the stars form angular pairs, like a giant domino game in the sky! But there is more than one set of “sisters” to find here…

Perhaps by now you’ve noticed a “fuzzy spot” to the northwest of Aldebaran? Now that you’ve roped the Bull and are ready to ride, let’s take a trip 440 light years away to visit with the “Pleiades”. Mankind has also seen and recognized this group of stars for about as long as… well… as long as mankind has been looking at the stars! The Oriental culture refers to them as “Suburu” and the Russians call them “Baba Yaga” – the witch with the fiery broom. They are mentioned in the Bible and the Greeks knew them as the “Seven Sisters”. In India, they are the “Stars of Fire” and native American Indians saw them as seven sisters hiding from the bears. Some cultures refer to the Pleiades as the “Little Eyes” and others associated them with fish caught in a net. Even the ancient Druids got in on the act, because they celebrated All Hallow’s Eve on the date this blue group of stars reached their highest point in the sky at midnight! If you take a look at them with binoculars or a telescope, you might notice a faint whisper of light around these stars that’s called nebulosity. They are passing through a region of dust in outer space and lighting up the cloud. Not bad for a group of stars that’s over 100 million years old!

Now the whistle has blown and it’s time to jump down off the Bull and run to safety, for Taurus is also home to one of the scariest things that can happen in space… A supernova! Now, in our times, we need a telescope to see what is left of an exploding star – but 900 years ago it was so bright that it could be seen during the day! Now all that’s left is a neutron star – a pulsar that sends off radio signals just like a heartbeat… and the “smoking” leftovers of the star’s mass shooting out into space at a speed of 1,500 kilometers per second. But don’t worry… the “Crab Nebula” is about 6,500 light-years from our solar system.

If you don’t find Taurus right away, don’t worry… But keep watching in the days ahead as the Moon gets closer and closer each night. Why? Because you’re in for a very special treat. Be sure to take a look at the constellation of Taurus on the night of February 21, 2010. For many of you, the Moon will cover up (occult) some of the stars of the Pleiades! For others, the Moon may just slide right by the edge… But no matter where you live, the Moon and the Seven Sisters will keep each other company all night long.

Image Credits: Taurus Chart courtesy of University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), Taurus Mythological courtesy of Starry Nights Software, Aldebaran and Hyades illustration courtesy of Wikipedia, the Pleiades and Crab Nebula courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope and occultation chart courtesy of Your Sky.

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