Taurus is a zodiacal constellation found to the right (west) of the constellation Orion, and representing a snorting bull charging the mythological hunter from Greek legend. It is the 17th largest constellation in the entire night sky, with its brightest star, Aldebaran (alpha Tauri), being a giant orange star located 65 light years away and depicting the Bull’s Eye.
Location: A Northern Constellation
Taurus is visible to observers between latitudes +90° and -65°, and although found in the northern sky, it is still visible to observers located south of the equator during the southern summer. Look for Taurus toward the northeast of Orion, and southwest of Perseus. Also look for the famous Pleiades star cluster (M45) halfway along the “back” of the bull, where it appears to be caught between Taurus and the constellation Aries.
Best Seen: Autumn/Winter
For northern observers, Taurus is best seen in the autumn and winter months, while in the Southern hemisphere Taurus is can be seen in spring and summer. In the Northern hemisphere Taurus appears in the east from October and November just after sunset. During December and January it then gains elevation, to culminate during the first half of January, making this month the best to observe the constellation.
Represents: Zeus Disguised as a Bull
According to Greek mythology, Taurus represents the beautiful white bull that Zeus transformed himself into in order to abduct Europa, princess of Phoenicia. After he revealed himself to her in Crete, she gave birth to a son who later became King Minos of Crete. In another version of the legend, Taurus represents the beautiful bull King Minos failed to sacrifice to Zeus who, in punishment, made the king’s wife Queen Pasiphae fall in love with and as a result sire the Minotaur.
Shape: Contains “V” shaped Asterism
Apart from the Hyades cluster that is said by some observers to delineate the face and horns of a bull, the shape of a bovine in the sky is not readily apparent. In fact, if it weren’t for the two bright stars Aldebaran and Elnath marking the “chest”, and “head” of the creature respectively, the “Bull” might be invisible to all but those with the most active imaginations.
Notable Stars: Aldebaran (1st Magnitude)
Taurus is home to a great number of multiple star systems, as well as many bright and massive stars. Below are some of the principal stars of the constellation.
– Aldebaran (Alpha Tauri) is the most luminous star in the constellation, and the 13th most luminous in the entire sky. It is an orange, class K5III giant that is more than 44 times as big as the Sun and at least 425 times as bright, with an apparent visual magnitude that varies between 0.75 and 0.95, making it a type LB semi-regular variable star. Aldebaran is about 65 light years away, and although it seems to be the brightest star in the Hyades cluster, it is in fact a foreground star relative to the cluster, which is about 150 light years away. Being close to the ecliptic, Aldebaran can be occulted by the Moon.
– Elnath (Beta Tauri) is a class B7III giant star, and the second most luminous star in Taurus. With an apparent visual magnitude of 1.68, its 131-light year distance from Earth makes it at least 700 times as bright as the Sun. Like Aldebaran, Elnath is close to the ecliptic, and can therefore also be occulted by the Moon.
– Pectus Tauri (Lambda Tauri) is a triple star system with an apparent visual magnitude of 3.47, located about 480 light years away. The primary component of the system (Lambda Tauri AB) is a close binary system, with an orbital period of only 3.95 days. Being an eclipsing binary system, the pair’s combined visual magnitude varies between 3.37 and 3.91. The primary star in the system is a class B3V star about seven times as massive as the Sun, 6.4 times as big, and at least 5,800 times as bright. Both stars in the systems are rapid spinners, with equatorial rotational velocities of 85km/sec, and 76 km/sec respectively.
– 119 Tauri is remarkable for its sheer bulk. At about 600 times as big as the Sun, it is not only one of the largest stars known; it is also one of the reddest stars ever found. 119 Tauri is a red, class M2Iab-Ib supergiant with an apparent visual magnitude of 4.32, which varies slightly from 4.32 to 4.54 over a period of 165 days. The star is located about 1,800 light years away, and being close to the ecliptic, it is sometimes occulted by the Moon.
Notable Objects: Many Famous Star Clusters
Taurus is home to some of the best known star clusters in the sky; M45 (Pleiades Cluster) has been known for at least 15,000 years, with the Hyades Cluster (Caldwell 41) for only slightly less.
-The Pleiades (M45) is one of the most beautiful open star cluster in the night sky, as well as one of the most easiest to spot. It is located about 440 light-years away, has an apparent visual magnitude of 1.6, and estimates on the cluster’s age range from as old as 100 million years to about 10 million years. what is certain, however, is that all the stars in the cluster formed from the same material, and all the stars in the cluster share a common motion across the sky. Its brightest nine stars are named after the the Seven Sisters from Greek mythology, although just seven of these young blue stars can be seen with the naked eye. It is estimated that this cluster actually contains up to 1,000 stars.
– The Hyades Cluster (Caldwell 41); at the head of the constellation Taurus is a “V” shaped group of stars known as the Hyades, which at just 151 light-years distant is the nearest open cluster to our own solar system. Its name derives from the Greek ‘to rain’ as their reappearance in the night sky coincided with the start of the winter rains. They are around 20 stars visible to the nake eye, although the Hyades cluster actually contains up to 400 stars, many of which are orange-giant stars around 700 million years old.
– The Crab Nebula (M1); the Taurus constellation contains many other interesting objects, including the Crab Nebula (M1). This night sky object is about 6,500 light-years away and is actually the remnants of a supernova explosion, which was seen from Earth in 1054 BCE. At its peak the supernova attained a magnitude of -4, but now is of magnitude 8.4 and can only be seen through a telescope.
Planets: 10 Stars with 12 Planets
All told, Taurus 10 stars with 12 confirmed planets between them. One star has a planet with a potentially habitable moon.
Meteor Showers: The Taurids
The constellation has two meteor showers associated with it, namely The Taurids, and The Beta Taurids:
– The Taurids is one of the oldest known meteor showers, and consists of two branches; the Northern Taurids that runs from October 12th to December 2nd, with a peak that stretches from November 4th to November 7th; and the Southern Taurids that runs from September 17th to November 27th with a seven-day peak from October 30th to November 7th. Both branches have peak rates of about 7 meteors per hour.
– The Beta Taurids is a daytime shower that runs from June 5th to July 18th, with a peak that stretches over a few days on either side of June 29th. Observers who have access to radar equipment can expect to see about 25 meteors per hour during the peak.
In astrology, the Sun passes through the sign Taurus from April 21st to May 21st, while in astronomy the Sun passes through the constellation from May 14th to June 19th, which is about one month later. Other astrological associations are:
Date of Birth: April 20 to May 20
Sign Ruler: Venus
Birth Stone: Emerald
Characteristics: Romantic, logical, patient, benevolent
Compatibility: Capricorn, Virgo and Taurus
As old constellations go, Taurus counts among the oldest, with its history dating back thousands of years. The famous 16,500 year-old map on a cave wall at Lascaux in France is believed to depict the stars in Taurus and the Pleiades, and shows that the constellation was recognised as a bull 15,000 years ago. Thus, when Ptolemy catalogued Taurus as one of the zodiacal constellations in the 2nd century A.D., the constellation was already well known in almost all cultures across the world.
In ancient Babylonia, Taurus was known as “MUL.APIN”, meaning “The Heavenly Bull”; in reference to a battle between Gilgamesh and the Bull that was sent by the goddess Ishtar to kill Gilgamesh in revenge for spurning her. In classical Mesopotamian depictions, Gilgamesh is sometimes shown as Orion aiming his drawn bow at the Bull.
Taurus also contains one of very few celestial objects mentioned by name in the Bible; the Book of Job in the Old Testament contains this phrase- “Canst thou bind together the brilliant Pleiades?” which phrase forms part of a discussion between God and Job.
Mythology of the Pleiades and Hyades
Atlas, the Titan who held up the Earth on his giant shoulders, and Pleione had 7 daughters collectively known as the Pleiades, namely Maia, Electra, Alcyone, Taygete, Asterope, Celaeno and Merope. After becoming the target of Orion’s affections, and being chased across the world, Zeus subsequently transformed them into a flock of doves (“Pleiades in Greek”), and set them in the heavens as the seven sisters. One of the sisters, Merope, however, is invisible out of shame for having married Sysiphus, a mortal man.
Atlas had a further 7 daughters by Aethra. The Hyades, as they were know, wept so bitterly after the death of their brother, Hyas, that Zeus took compassion on them and set them as a cluster of stars at the head of the constellation Taurus.