Dim Delights in Cancer
Artist concept of 55 Cancri e orbiting its nearby host star. Find details from the Spitzer Space Telescope’s close study of its atmosphere at: bit.ly/spitzer55cancrie  and the Hubble Space Telescope’s observations at bit.ly/hubble55cancrie Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
 
Cancer the Crab is a dim constellation, yet it contains one of the most beautiful and easy-to-spot star clusters in our sky: the Beehive Cluster. Cancer also possesses one of the most studied exoplanets: the superhot super-Earth, 55 Cancri e.

Find Cancer’s dim stars by looking in between the brighter neighboring constellations of Gemini and Leo. Don’t get frustrated if you can’t find it at first, since Cancer isn’t easily visible from moderately light polluted areas. Once you find Cancer, look for its most famous deep-sky object: the Beehive Cluster! It’s a large open cluster of young stars, three times larger than our Moon in the sky. The Beehive is visible to unaided eyes under good sky conditions as a faint cloudy patch, but is stunning when viewed through binoculars or a wide-field telescope. It was one of the earliest deep-sky objects noticed by ancient astronomers, and so the Beehive has many other names, including Praesepe, Nubilum, M44, the Ghost, and Jishi qi. Take a look at it on a clear night through binoculars. Do these stars look like a hive of buzzing bees? Or do you see something else? There’s no wrong answer, since this large star cluster has intrigued imaginative observers for thousands of years.

Star chart showing how to find the constellation Cancer in between the constellations of Leo and Gemini. The location of both the Beehive Cluster and 55 Cancri are circled.
 
55 Cancri is a nearby binary star system, about 41 light years from us and faintly visible under excellent dark sky conditions. The larger star is orbited by at least five planets including 55 Cancri e, (a.k.a. Janssen, named after one of the first telescope makers). Janssen is a “super-earth,” a large rocky world 8 times the mass of our Earth, and orbits its star every 18 hours, giving it one of the shortest years of all known planets! Janssen was the first exoplanet to have its atmosphere successfully analyzed. Both the Hubble and recently-retired Spitzer space telescopes confirmed that the hot world is enveloped by an atmosphere of helium and hydrogen with traces of hydrogen cyanide: not a likely place to find life, especially since the surface is probably scorching hot rock. The NASA Exoplanet Catalog has more details about this and many other exoplanets at bit.ly/nasa55cancrie.
 
How do astronomers find planets around other star systems? The Night Sky Network’s “How We Find Planets” activity helps demonstrate both the transit and wobble methods of exoplanet detection: bit.ly/findplanets. Notably, 55 Cancri e was discovered via the wobble method in 2004, and then the transit method confirmed the planet’s orbital period in 2011!
 
Want to learn more about exoplanets? Get the latest NASA news about worlds beyond our solar system at nasa.gov.

You can find a printer-ready version of this article on our NIght Sky Notes resource page every month, free to share with your club newsletter, website, or even local paper!

Additional Skywatching Resources

Plan your skywatching with help from our planner page, featuring daily stargazing tips courtesy EarthSky monthly sky maps, and videos from NASA/JPL. You can even find out how to spot the International Space Station! Both Astronomy and Sky and Telescope magazines offer regular stargazing guides to readers, both in print and online. Want to join a group of folks for a star party? Find clubs and astronomy events near you, and may you have clear skies!
 
Last Updated: March 1, 2020
logo for Facebooklogo for TwitterLogo for YouTubeLogo for Instagram
Follow us on Facebook Twitter and Instagram for the latest NSN news and outreach photos, and subscribe to our YouTube channel for recordings of monthly astronomy webinars and archives of our outreach toolkit demonstration videos.  #NightSkyNetwork #AstronomyOutreach
 
Logo for Night Sky Network featuring child and astronomer observing the skyNight Sky Network (NSN) member clubs are dedicated to bringing the wonders of space and NASA science to folks across the USA.NSN program participation provides clubs with tools and resources to assist in their public outreach. 


 
 
Logo for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific
The NASA Night Sky Network is managed by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific. The ASP is a 501c3 non-profit organization advancing science literacy through astronomy.