Looking Up column: Catch the glittering Pleiades

Peter Becker
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The Pleiades, photographed Jan. 4, 2019 by Juan Iacruz.

The pretty lights we see every night in the Christmas and Hanukkah season mimic the beauty of the stars, which the Creator used to help decorate the vast Universe. The ornaments and lights of the Christmas tree traditionally represent the stars, with the Christmas Star on top. All too soon, however, our decorations will be taken down and stowed away till next year (unless you keep them up till July).

Thankfully, we can enjoy the real thing every clear night of the year. Although light pollution and moonlight hide the majority of what we can see on a pristine, truly dark night, here, there and everywhere, stars of various brightness and color, shine down on us.

Of particular note on a winter night is the glorious Pleiades Star Cluster. Easily viewed with eyes alone, this group of blue-white stars appear compacted and just seem to glitter and beg us to take a closer look.

You can find the Pleiades in late December by looking high up in the south, around 9 p.m.; more to the southeast if you step out earlier.

The Pleiades are within the constellation Taurus the Bull. Looking a bit down and to the left, you will find the bright red-orange star Aldebaran, at the tip of a line of stars tracing what looks like the capital letter “V” on its side. This is another star cluster, the Hyades, which is actually closer and looks larger to us than the Pleiades, but its stars are dimmer. Aldebaran just happens to be situated in our line of sight with the Hyades and is not part of the star cluster.

There are hundreds of stars associated with the Pleiades, but only about six or seven are easily seen with the unaided eyes. These are the brightest members. The cluster is also known as the “Seven Sisters.”

Most people, however, can make out no more than six. How many can you find? Binoculars, however, will show many more stars in the cluster.

The brighter members are grouped together like a tiny dipper. This is not to be confused with the Little Dipper, the common name for the main stars of Ursa Minor the Little Bear, its most well known star being Polaris and seen due north.

The cluster is listed in the Messier catalog as M45.

Long-exposure photographs show the Pleiades enveloped in a patchy cloud- nebulosity, shining with the same blue-white light as the cluster stars.

The Pleiades are actually passing through a vast patch of dust and gas, which shines by the reflected light from the Pleiades’ stars.

A moderately-sized telescope can begin to show this nebula, dimly seen surrounding the brighter stars. I have seen this with a 10-inch reflecting telescope. A dark night and eyes well adapted for the night are a must.

The brightest Pleiades stars were named by the ancient Greeks, for seven daughters the Titan Atlas and the Oceanid Pleione.

They are Maia, Ekectra, Taygete, Caleano, Alcyone, Sterope and Merope.

The Arabs knew this group as the “Little She Camels.”

The Pleiades are mentioned in the Bible three times, in Amos 5:8, Job 9:9 and Job 38.31.

Interestingly, mythology and science agree about the Pleiades’ stars being siblings. Star clusters arise from the same cosmic cloud and are gravitationally bound, as they travel the galaxy together as a “family.” Very gradually, cluster stars tend to drift apart.

What they need is a cosmic family reunion.

The Pleiades are estimated to be passing us 444 light years away. The cluster light you see tonight, in late December 2020, left the stars around 1576.

The astronomer Galileo Galilei, who first used the telescope to study the night sky, was only 12 years old at that time. He was the first to examine the Pleiades in a telescope, mapping 36 stars, which he published in 1610.

Full Moon is on Dec. 29.

Keep looking up at the sky!

Peter Becker is managing editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at news@neagle.com. Please mention in what newspaper or website you read this column.

The Pleiades are shown at right, in the constellation Taurus. On a late December evening, turn this star chart counter-clockwise the left to better match what you will see.