Pretty, Pretty Pleiades

The Pleiades star cluster glides up into the northeastern sky around 11 p.m. in early September. We see its reflection in a puddle left in a driveway after a recent rain. Bob King

Lately, I’m seeing new faces in the night sky. With the pall of fire haze gone and the moon out of the evening sky, one of our favorite star clusters has returned to view — the Pleiades. Better known as the Seven Sisters this dipper-shaped clutch of stars pokes out from between the trees low in the northeastern sky around 11 o’clock local time. By midnight, it will definitely get your attention.

I was walking last night and noticed its reflection in a big puddle on a neighbor’s driveway. No breeze ruffled the water, so the puddle perfectly mirrored the sky above. As an aside, notice that the reflected sky appears darker than the real one. This is because water absorbs around 85% of the light that falls upon, reflecting about 15% back. If it were a pool of polished aluminum instead, some 70% of the light would be reflected back and the bottom half of the photo would appear much brighter.

I took this photo with a 100mm lens using a tracking mount. The star Merope is located in the bottom of the “bucket.” A 4-inch or larger telescope will show a subtle glow of a nebula around and south of Merope. Bob King

It’s funny how we perceive objects in the sky. If I asked how many full moons it would take to cover the Pleiades you might guess just one. But the truth is it would take two side-by-side full moons just to cover the the “dipper” part and four to mop up the rest of the cluster. I think because the the full moon appears so bright we unconsciously exaggerate its size.

I love all views of the Seven Sisters. With the naked eye, the fuzzy-looking bunch adds a cosmic touch to the landscape. I can’t think of a better word than enchanting to describe how it weaves between the silhouetted trees and buildings when you’re out walking on a late summer or fall night. Binoculars reveal so many more stars and really dress up the view, plus stars look more like stars in binoculars. They look fiery and shine more penetratingly. Through a telescope, there are even more stars to see plus double stars and the Merope Nebula.

Here’s a closeup of the Merope Nebula to better help you see it in a telescope. Alcyone, above Merope, is the brightest star in the Pleiades. It’s also a quadruple star! The little triangle immediately to the left of the star are its companions. The stars of the Pleiades are called the Seven Sisters and named for daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione. Karol Masztalerz / CC-SA-4.0

Merope, one of the sisters, illuminates a large cloud of cosmic dust in its vicinity. Light reflecting from the dust colors it a pale blue in photos. When viewed through a 4-inch or larger telescope, the nebula looks just like breath on a mirror. While the universe can be unimaginably violent and devil-may-care, it also has a gentler side revealed in this delicate blush of reflected starlight.

You can see the comet’s head and fan-like tail in this time exposure taken with a 100mm lens (ISO 800 and 80-second exposure on a tracking mount) about 12:30 a.m. Sept. 6. Auriga’s rich in star clusters; the comet will pass near M37 on the night of the 9th. Bob King

Comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner has been busy buzzing across Auriga this week. I caught sight of it in 10×50 binoculars around midnight low in the northeastern sky late Wednesday night. From a dark sky, the comet looks like a fuzzy blob with a hint of a tail. Telescopes show much more. Click here for a chart to help you follow it in the coming week.