Pleiades passage / Aurora night 3?

Venus nearly overwhelms the Seven Sisters or Pleiades star cluster yesterday evening around 9 p.m. in the western sky. Watch for the two to be nearly as close together tonight. Credit: Bob King

Venus nearly overwhelms the Seven Sisters or Pleiades star cluster yesterday evening around 9 p.m. in the western sky. Watch for the two to be nearly as close together tonight. Credit: Bob King

You couldn’t help noticing Venus and the Pleiades last night glimmering in the west at dusk. Tonight they’ll be nearly as close. If you have a small telescope, take a closer look and see if you can discern the planet’s small, not-quite-round disk.

Venus passes through phases just like the moon and has surprised more than a few first time viewers who thought that’s what they were looking at. A moon in miniature but shiny white and without a bump or crater to mare its smooth and perfect “skin”. Unlike the moon, Venus is 100% cloaked in clouds. From its surface you wouldn’t see a single star not just for a week or two but for as long as you’d live. If there were ever a nightmare planet for amateur astronomy, this is it.

As Venus revolves around the Sun interior to Earth's orbit, we see it go through phases depending on its position in relation to the Sun.  Credit: Wikipedia

As Venus revolves around the Sun interior to Earth’s orbit, we see it go through phases depending on its position in relation to the Sun. Credit: Wikipedia

Venus orbits the Sun inside of Earth’s orbit — the reason we see lunar-like phases — with a period of 225 days. That makes a Venusian year only 0.6 times as long as an Earth year. For those who love birthdays then, Venus offers nearly twice as many as our plodding planet.

Through April, Venus appears as small waxing gibbous moon through a telescope, but as it catches up to Earth, it will gradually slim down to a half-moon and finally a crescent. Because it’s approaching our planet, its apparent size will also increase. By crescent phase, Venus’ shape is easily visible in little more than 10x binoculars.

While Venus is 106 million miles (170 million km) from us today, that’s peanuts compared to its neighbor, the Pleiades, which beckons from a distance of 444 light years or 2.66 quadrillion miles.

The aurora at 3:27 a.m. this morning April 10 from Midway Township near Duluth, Minn. Moonlight lit the foreground. Credit: Matthew Moses

The aurora at 3:27 a.m. this morning April 11 from Midway Township near Duluth, Minn. Moonlight lit the foreground. Credit: Matthew Moses

I can vouch that the northern lights remained active all the way into twilight this morning. Even with the last quarter moon shining, a rayless hump of aurora glowed brightly in the lower half of the northern sky until finally quenched by dawn. Chances for seeing northern lights drop off this evening, but there may still be some action. Once again, watch for a glow in the north as soon as the sky gets dark.

Last night, a low auroral arc minded its own business for a very long time before surging into activity. I stood out on a dirt road somewhere north and watched the slow, slow process unfold to the sound of a single saw-whet owl’s relentless peeping.

More auroras forecast / Venus snuggles up to the Pleiades

Time lapse of the aurora from Spirit Lake, Idaho April 9-10 by Donny Mott. Things get interesting about halfway through.

Yes – auroras made a sweep of the sky overnight and were visible as far south as Colorado. Unfortunately they weren’t particularly bright in part because of moonlight. But through the camera lens, the rays and arcs shone as a kaleidoscope of red, green and purple.

 Paul Zizka took this beautifully composed aurora portait last night from Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. "when the sky filled with aurora Im pretty sure I started screaming like a little girl. The aurora showed a wide array of colours and shapes over the Canadian Rockies and lasted several hours. Dream come true." Credit: Paul Zizka

Paul Zizka took this fantastic aurora portrait last night from Athabasca Glacier, Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada. “When the sky filled with aurora, I’m pretty sure I started screaming like a little girl. The aurora showed a wide array of colors and shapes over the Canadian Rockies and lasted several hours. Dream come true.” Credit: Paul Zizka

It appears that activity kicked in a little later than expected – mostly after midnight – but raged till dawn. Expect a continued chance for northern lights tonight especially before midnight.

Venus passes closest to the Seven Sisters star cluster a.k.a. the Pleiades tonight and tomorrow. Created with Stellarium

Venus passes closest to the Seven Sisters star cluster a.k.a. the Pleiades tonight and tomorrow. This view shows the sky facing west around 8:45 p.m. local time in late dusk this evening. Created with Stellarium

There’s more than one cool thing happening in this evening’s sky. Look west at late dusk and fix your gaze on the brilliant planet Venus. When you do, you’ll notice some fuzzy stars only 2.5° away — the Pleiades!

The brightest planet passes closest to the sky’s most awesome star cluster this evening and next. What a contrast they make. Venus so shockingly luminous set against the delicate twinkle of the cluster stars. I encourage you to use your binoculars to appreciate them together under a little bit of magnification. It’s not often that both neatly fit in the same field of view.

You’ll also discover that the Seven Sisters, an alternate name for the Pleiades, is something of a misnomer. With 7x or 10x magnification their number increases dramatically. I dare you to count them. For more about the event and the curious 8-year-cycles of Venus-Pleiades visits, click HERE.

Dawn near Ceres – approach images, videos and animations

Today or tomorrow we should be seeing a new set of higher resolution photos of the dwarf planet Ceres taken by NASA’s Dawn spacecraft today. Check back later and hopefully we’ll have some fresh views of crescent Ceres.

See the starry stepping stones of spring

Like stepping stones across the twilit sky, Sirius, Orion's Belt, the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters (and Venus too!)  follow one another across the western sky during at nightfall in April. Credit: Bob King

Sirius, Orion’s Belt, the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters (and Venus too!) splay across the western sky at nightfall in April. Photo taken April 4, 2015 around 8:45 p.m. local time. Credit: Bob King

They may all officially belong to the winter sky, but Sirius, Orion’s Belt, the Hyades and Pleiades tilt over in the most appealing way every April. With Venus joining the scene, you can star hop from one to the next the way you might use stepping stones to cross a stream. Take a look in the west during evening twilight, and you’ll see what I mean.

Each “stone” is distinctive in its own right — Sirius (the brightest star in the sky); Orion’s Belt (a stand-out star pattern visible across the globe); the Hyades (bright star cluster and the closest one to Earth at just 153 light years); the Pleiades (the famed Seven Sisters star cluster shaped like a dipper) and Venus, brightest planet in the sky.

Two fists held at arm’s length separate Sirius from Orion’s Belt and Orion’s Belt from the Hyades. You can squeeze one fist between the Hyades and Pleiades and the Pleiades and Venus. There’s a rhythm or spacing to the pattern pleasing to the eye.

Watch for Venus and the Seven Sisters to draw closer and closer this week. From April 10-12 (Friday-Sunday), they’ll be just 2.5° apart and a wonderful sight together in binoculars.

There’s also a hidden pattern among the five objects relating to their distances. At 8.6 light years, Sirius is the 5th closest star system beyond the Sun. Orion’s Belt stars all lie much farther – between 800 and 1,000 light years away. With the Hyades, our gaze returns to the “neighborhood” 153 light years from Earth, recedes again to 444 light years with the Pleiades and returns to our own front yard with Venus, a mere 110 million miles from home.

Near-far-near-far-near. E-I-E-I-O! Anyone for a round of Old MacDonald Had a Farm?

Typhoon Maysak strengthened into a super typhoon on March 31, reaching Category 5 hurricane status on the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale. ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti captured this image while flying over the weather system on board the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

Typhoon Maysak strengthened into a super typhoon on March 31, reaching Category 5 hurricane status. ESA Astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti captured this image while flying over the weather system on board the International Space Station. Credit: NASA

While you’re out enjoying spring’s many rhythms, watch for the International Space Station (ISS). It’s making passes again over the U.S. and other countries during convenient evening viewing hours through late April. When brightest, the space station bests the planet Jupiter as it travels steadily (and unblinkingly) from west to east across the sky.

You can get viewing times and more information at Heavens Above (click on the ISS link), key in your zip code at Spaceweather’s Satellite Flybys page, have NASA alert you via e-mail or text message or download an app for your phone.

For the Duluth, northern Minnesota and northern Wisconsin region, here are a few viewing times:

* Tonight April 5 from 8:40-45 p.m. you’ll see the ISS track across the southern sky
* Monday April 6 from 9:22-27 p.m. a brilliant high pass straight across the top of the sky
* Tuesday April 7 from 8:29-35 p.m. high in the south. Another brilliant pass.

Can you feel the Love(joy) tonight? Winter comet now at its best

Comet Q2 Lovejoy sports a faint, blue tail about 5 long while near the Pleiades star cluster last night. The head or coma of the comet is easily visible with the naked eye; the tail shows up in binoculars as a thick, smoky streak pointing to the northeast. The glowing patches in the cluster are caused by cosmic dust reflecting starlight. Details: 200mm telephoto at f/2.8, ISO 800. Credit: Bob King

Darkness came in heaps and lingered for hours last night. Although Comet Q2 Lovejoy competes well with the glare of the city and isn’t hard to see from my driveway, I craved something closer to a classic 18th century, electricity-free sky. That meant putting another 25 miles between me and Duluth.

This photo map will help you find the comet in the next few nights as it passes the Pleiades star cluster. Dates are shown at right from Jan. 11-19. Look high in the southeast at nightfall to spy the dipper-shaped cluster then look about one fist to its right. The comet looks like a dim, slightly fuzzy star of 4th magnitude. Credit: Bob King

From the countryside it was easy to just find the Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster and jump from there to the comet. As you can see from the photo map, Lovejoy will be near the cluster the next few nights. There’s still no moon in the sky, so I encourage to go out now for a look if you haven’t already. Even if you’ve seen it once or two, the comet bears watching every clear night. Fluctuations in the solar wind continuously change the shape, length and appearance of the ion or gas tail that’s so outrageously beautiful right now.

Comet Lovejoy time exposure made through an 8-inch (20-cm) telescope on January 14th. Beautiful! Click to immerse yourself. Credit: Gerald Rhemann

To my eyes, Lovejoy looked a little brighter (magnitude +3.8) last night than a week ago when it was closest to Earth. Even in 50mm binoculars you can see the pale blue color of the head or coma. The spectacular tail rays depicted in deep photos are much harder to make out. I could just detect a couple of them faintly in a 15-inch telescope when I moved the bright coma out of the field of view and allowed my eyes to fully dark-adapt. Tapping the telescope to bounce the comet around helped to make them stand out better.

Insane high resolution view of Comet Lovejoy’s ion or gas tail on January 11th. Heat from the Sun is responsible for cooking comet ice, which vaporizes and releases gases and dust to form a tail. UV light from the Sun then ionizes or electrified the gases and the solar wind wraps around the comet and drags them into multiple tail rays. Credit: Damian Peach

We’ve got about another week of dark, moonless skies ideal for comet watching. Perihelion or closest approach to the Sun occurs on January 30th, so Lovejoy’s brightness may remain constant during this time even as it moves farther from Earth.

Did you catch the Saturn-moon conjunction this morning? It was cloudy in Duluth, Minn. but around 7:15 a.m. a few brief holes opened up, showing the pair. Credit: Bob King

While you’re at it, point your binoculars at the nearby Pleiades for a face-full of stars. They’re my favorite in binocular cluster because the group comes alive with far more stars than are visible with the naked eye.

I hope you were able to see the conjunction of Saturn and crescent moon earlier today. I wasn’t able to see it at the optimal time in a dark sky at the start of dawn, but we still got a glimpse here.

On Sunday I’ll include a brand new map for tracking Comet Lovejoy over the next two weeks as it continues its northward climb.

Crescent moon visits a ‘wintering’ Venus / Mercury-moon conjunction for y’all

The slender crescent moon brushes Venus Tuesday morning at dawn low in the northeastern sky. The Pleiades star cluster, better known as the Seven Sisters, floats just above the pair. This map shows the sky facing northeast around 4 a.m. June 24. Stellarium

Wonder where the moon’s been hiding lately? Unless you’re up around 3 a.m. it’s been scarce this past week. All that time our favorite cratered world has been slimming down in the morning sky.

Now it’s a waning crescent fingernail, what many consider the moon’s most eye-catching phase.

Tuesday morning June 24 at dawn the thin crescent will join Venus in the constellation Taurus just below the pretty Pleiades star cluster. About 1 1/2 degrees or three moon diameters will separate Venus and the moon. To see this beautiful conjunction, look low in the northeastern sky at the start of dawn.

For the best view of the Seven Sisters, I recommend binoculars. Whenever I’ve had a reason to be up before sunrise in early summer I make a point of looking at the cluster. Taurus, neighboring Auriga and the Pleiades all belong to the winter sky, but we get a preview of that inevitable season as early as the first mornings of summer. There’s something delicious about seeing the first stars of winter as the robins sing in the dewy woods.

An extremely thin moon will pass very close to Mercury on Thursday morning June 26 as seen from the southern U.S. This view shows the sky facing northeast right around sunrise for New Orleans, LA. The moon will only be about 5 degrees high at the time. Use binoculars to find it. Seeing Mercury will require a small telescope. Stellarium

Live in the far southern U.S.? You’ve got one more lunar visitation. This one will be challenging. On Thursday morning, the moon, just 21 hours before new, will glide a fraction of a degree south of the planet Mercury in a bright sky only minutes before sunrise. The moon will hover very low (5 degrees) in the northeast in a bright sky. Whatever you do, bring binoculars. You might need them to find the moon at all.

Like the moon, Mercury’s an extremely thin crescent and very faint, shining at just magnitude 3.5. Skywatchers might spot it in binoculars, but I’m not betting on it. With very clear skies, there’s a chance of seeing the planet directly above the northern cusp of the moon with a small telescope. Should you succeed, you’ll be rewarded with the rare sight of two delicate crescents one atop the other. Find a location with a wide open view to the northeast and start looking about 15 minutes before sunrise.

The moon will cover up or occult the planet for observers in northern South America, but again, this will happen in a bright sky and prove tricky to see.

Just a reminder. Although no auroras showed last night at mid-latitudes, there’s still a chance for a minor storm tonight. I’ll send out a notice if that happens.


Full Frosty Moon bumps into Pleiades and Hyades tonight

Tonight’s Full Frosty Moon will rise around sunset in the northeastern sky. November’s full moon is also known as the Full Beaver Moon. Credit: Bob King

Every full moon’s an occasion to get outside for a moonlit stroll. No binoculars or telescope needed. It’s surprising how much you can see by moonlight once your eyes get accustomed to its dark luster. Full moonlight, especially when the moon rides high in the sky as it does this month, makes me think of what daytime might look like on a planet orbiting a dim red dwarf star. Think how the sense of vision would have evolved in creatures on such a planet. To make the most of weak illumination, owl-like eyes could come in handy.

November’s full moon goes by two names – Full Beaver Moon and Full Frosty Moon. The first refers to the time to set beaver traps before the small waterways and swamps froze; the second to what covers the lawn after a clear night this month. Should you be fortunate enough to have clear skies this evening, you can watch the moon rise in the northeastern sky in the constellation Taurus. As always, the full moon rises around sunset directly opposite the sun. Click HERE to find the moonrise time for your city.

The full moon sits smack in the middle between the Pleiades and Hyades clusters tonight. Can you see them through the glare? Created with Stellarium

We all know how glaringly bright the moon is when you stare at it. Most stars in its vicinity are swamped by glare and invisible, but tonight, if you reach your hand up and block the brilliant disk, you might be able to make out two nearby star clusters, the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) and Hyades. First magnitude Aldebaran in the Hyades should be easy to see. While the bright orangish star looks like it belongs to the V-shaped group, it’s really in the foreground 65 light years away, 88 light years closer than the Hyades.

The Pleiades might be easier to spot, but if you’re having trouble with either, binoculars will make finding them a breeze. Well off to the moon’s upper left you’ll see the bright, twinkling star Capella in the pentagon-shaped constellation Auriga the Charioteer. Starting with Capella, can you trace the constellation’s outline?

Oblique view of the 8-mile-wide (13 km) crater Dugan J photographed by LRO. Dugan J is a simple, bowl-shaped crater. Debris from the rim has fallen downslope to fill the crater bottom. See closeup photo below. Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter page (LRO) is where I go when I need to visit the moon up close. I’ve included a couple recent postings so you can relish the details. Orbiting at just 31 miles (50 km) high, LRO can distinguish features as small as two feet (0.5 meter) across. When mission control took closeups of the Apollo landing sites, the spacecraft was lowered even further to 13 miles (21 km). Need more “lunar cowbell”? Check out the zoomable gallery.

Zooming into Dugan J on the LRO site almost feels like you’re standing on the rim looking in! Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Passing time with the Pleiades, the late night skywatcher’s fuzzy friend

The Pleiades (middle right) and neighboring stars are reflected in Boulder Lake near Duluth, Minn. recently. Credit: Bob King

“Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.”

- from Locksley Hall by Lord Alfred Tennyson, Victorian poet

The Pleiades star cluster catches the eye of the late night skywatcher as we transition into September. Is there a surer sign of winter’s slow approach than the return of this little dipper of stars to the eastern sky? I saw the bunch last night struggling to clear the treetops around 11 p.m. By midnight it stood apart – a beautiful sight with both the naked eye and binoculars.

The bright stars in the Pleiades are named for the daughters of Atlas and Pleione in Greek mythology. Credit: John Lanoue

I love watching the Pleiades (PLEE-uh-deez). There’s nothing quite like it in the heavens. Most stars are single and separate from each other, but the Pleiades packs more than a handful into a single compact shape that stands apart from nearly everything else in the sky.
You’ve probably noticed that the cluster looks a little fuzzy. That’s due in part to seeing so many stars – some visible and many below the naked eye limit – so close together they blend and blur the same way billions of faint stars in the Milky Way do to create a hazy, speckled band across the sky. That’s not all. The Pleiades stars are caught up in a dim cloud of stellar dust or nebulosity that further softens their appearance.

A telephoto view of the Pleiades shows many more stars – much like the view in a pair of binoculars. Credit: Bob King

Each bright “Pleiad”, as they’re called, is named after a daughter of the Greek god Atlas, whose job it was to hold up the sky, and Pleione, a protectress of sailing. Say hi to Maia, Electra, Alcyone, Taygete, Asterope, Celaeno and Merope. Oh, and don’t forget the parents – they’re included too.

The Pleiades is one of brightest and closest star clusters in the sky. It contains some 3,000 stars and lies about 400 light years from Earth. From side to side the group spans 13 light years or about halfway from Earth to the bright star Vega. Like a school of fish, all the Pleiads move together as a gravitationally-bound swarm through space. Within the cluster, you’ll also find double and multiple stars including Alcyone (al-SY-oh-nee), a fine quadruple splittable in just about any telescope.

The brilliant blue-white stars in the Seven Sister Cluster reveal a cloud of interstellar dust through which the cluster is moving. The brightest patch of nebulosity surrounds the star Merope and is visible in a small telescope from a dark sky. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/ESA/AURA/Caltech, Palomar Observatory

Time exposure photos reveal hazy clouds of stardust swaddling the cluster. This was originally thought to be gas and dust left over from the Pleiades’ formation. Recent studies now show that the group just happens to be passing through a random cloud of interstellar dust. Starlight reflecting off minute dust grains light up the cloud a chilly blue-white, the same color as the hottest, most brilliant Pleiads.
So how many Pleiades can you see?  Atlas, Alcyone, Merope, Electra and Maia are easy. Pleione and Taygeta are tougher, and only the very keen-eyed can spot Asterope and Celaeno. When the group rides high in the south just before dawn in a dark sky you might spot additional outliers using averted vision (looking to the side and around an object instead of staring straight at it). I’ve heard reports of some observers seeing 15 to 20!

The view facing northeast around 11:30 p.m. in early September. Capella is a brilliant star in the constellation Auriga.

Take a look at this stellar treat the next night you’re out late. Enjoy the fact that you don’t have to freeze while doing so. Come November, when the Seven Sisters appear in the east as soon as it’s dark, you’ll need a warm coat and hat when you venture out for a look.

Delicious Comet Lemmon-cluster pairing; moon greets 7 Sisters at dawn

Comet C/2012 F6 Lemmon cruises by the open cluster NGC 7789 in Cassiopeia last night July 2, 2013. Click to supersize. Credit: Damian Peach

It’s a beautiful thing when two completely different celestial objects pair up. Seen side by side, we can appreciate the unique qualities of each by contrast with the other. Two fine examples stand out this week.

Comet Lemmon, which has been chugging across the sky for months, pulled up alongside the rich star cluster NGC 7789 this week. The cluster is sandbox of pinpoint stars tucked off to one side of the W of Cassiopeia. I’ve been watching the scene the past two nights through the telescope. Last night both comet and cluster shared the same field of view.

Compared to the pointillistic stellar swarm, the comet looked ghostly and ethereal. And to think that one of these belongs to our solar system and the other resides on the far edge of the galaxy at a whopping 7,600 light years from Earth … well, it simply jazzes the brain cells. What can I say?

Then there’s composition to consider. Comets and the sun are made of virtually the same materials – hydrogen (frozen H2O in a comet’s case) and a dusting of carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, silicon and on and on. Yet comets are cold, relatively uncompressed dust. Not the sun. Put enough dust in one place and gravity will eventually crush it into a sphere hot enough to start its innards burning. A star is born. Interstellar dust left by earlier stellar generations is their common bond.

Watch the moon come up below the Pleiades star cluster tomorrow morning. The crescent will be only three days from new moon. This map shows the sky facing northeast at early dawn. Stellarium

Tomorrow morning we’ll see another auspicious duo. The waning lunar crescent rises at dawn below the Seven Sisters star cluster. Also known as the Pleiades (PLEE-uh-deez), the dipper-shaped group is more closely associated with the winter sky than the summer. In July it re-emerges during morning twilight, stalks the wee hours in August and looks down on earthlings from overhead on December evenings.

You can watch both moon and sisters with the naked eye, but binoculars will enhance the view. Next to the cluster, will the tweezers moon look closer to home than ever before? Take a look and see what you think.

Waning moon stalks Jupiter as Halloween approaches

The waning gibbous moon heads toward Jupiter in the next few nights. The two will be closest – only 2 degrees apart – the day after Halloween. The map shows the sky facing east around 9:30 p.m. local time. Created with Stellarium

Jupiter doesn’t know it, but the stealthy moon is on track to make a close approach to the planet this Thursday night. Tonight you’ll find the waning gibbous moon in edging into the constellation Taurus about one outstretched fist to the right of the Seven Sisters or Pleiades. Since it’s only one day past full, you’ll probably need binoculars to see the cluster. On Thursday, Jupiter and the slimming moon combine forces to shine with a mesmerizing radiance in the northeast around 9:30 p.m. and later.

Jupiter’s innermost bright moon Io moves into the planet’s shadow starting at 11:10 p.m. CDT this evening. Even a small telescope will show the eclipse. Create with Meridian software

If you have a telescope, you’ll see Jupiter’s moon Io to disappear as it’s eclipsed by Jove’s giant shadow. Eclipse occurs at 11:10 p.m. (CDT) tonight Oct. 30. Start watching a few minutes before that time. By 11:15 the moon will be gone.

Jupiter Wednesday night Oct. 31 at 9:30 p.m. (CDT) with Io’s shadow transit already in progress. South is up in both Jupiter panels. Created with Meridian software

Halloween night offers up yet another telescopic treat. As soon as Jupiter’s up in the east, you can follow the progress of Io’s inky shadow as it tracks across the clouds of the planet’s southern hemisphere. The event is called a shadow transit.

It begins at 8:18 and wraps up at 10:28 p.m. If you return at around 11:15 p.m. you’re in for another surprise – Io itself will exit the west side of the planet and appear like a bright pearl pinned to Jupiter’s limb.

Jupiter on Oct. 14 with the shadow of Io visible as a dark dot inside the planet’s limb. The two prominent stripes are the north and south equatorial cloud belts. Click image to see the video of Jupiter rotating. Credit: Damian Peach

Amateur astronomer and astrophotographer Damian Peach, who takes some of the finest, most detailed pictures of the planets and moon, recently compiled a sequence of photos of Jupiter made between Oct. 10 and 13 into a very cool animation. Click the link to watch an entire 9.8 hour rotation of the planet condensed into less than a minute. Peach hails from the UK and uses an 11.8 inch (30cm) Meade Schmidt-Cassegrain for his photography.

What’s lovelier than the Pleiades in September?

The Pleiades star cluster rises between the trees in the northeastern sky on a recent night. The attractive group comes up around 10 p.m. local time and is high in the east around midnight. Photo: Bob King

What’s lovelier on a September night than watching the Pleiades rise in the east? Whether you’re alone or in a group, when the “seven sisters” appear, everyone stops what they’re doing for a minute to admire this most beautiful star cluster. When I’m at a star party, someone inevitably calls out their first appearance like a courier announcing Caesar’s return to Rome. Yes, they’re that big of a deal.

The Pleiades represent the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione, which are also members of the dipper-shaped cluster. Asterope and Calaeno usually require binoculars to see. Credit: John Lanoue

The name Pleiades (PLEE-uh-deez)  comes from ancient Greek myth. Also called the Seven Sisters Cluster, the stars represent the seven daughters of the titan Atlas and sea-nymph Pleione. The origin of the name is uncertain but may be related to the word plein ( ‘to sail’), since the stars’ conjunction with the sun in spring and rising at sunset in fall marked the beginning and end of the sailing season in ancient Greece. Other possible origins include peleiades (‘flock of doves’) which is consistent with the story of Zeus turning the sisters into doves as they were pursued by Orion.

An interpretation of the Pleiades from a 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript called a codex (Codex Vossianus 79).

Being a compact group of bright stars quite unlike any other in the sky, the Pleiades have figured prominently in the sky lore of many cultures. Most people I know refer to the cluster as a “little dipper” or miniature version of the Big Dipper. My eye sees a shopping cart or baby stroller. Here’s just a small sampling of how others have interpreted their appearance:

* Japan – a strainer or dabs of paint on the sky
*  Celtic mythology – associated with a fall festival of the dead since the cluster rose in the east as the sun disappeared in the west in that season
* Maya Indians – a rattlesnake’s tail
* Mono people (Native Americans) of California – Six wives who loved onions more than their husbands and who now live happily in the sky.
*  Babylonians – Mul Mul or “star of stars”
* Maori of New Zealand – “Matariki” or little eyes
* Czech Republic – “Kuratka” or many small, young chickens

It’s their sheer compactness that delights the eye. They’re gathered so close together they seem enveloped in a fuzzy cocoon that further adds to their appeal. Poet Alfred Lord Tennyson said it best in his poem Locksley Hall:

“Many a night from yonder ivied casement, ere I went to rest,
Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the West.

Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.”

The Pleiades cluster contains about 1000 stars. Its core – what we see with the naked eye – is about 8 light years across or twice the distance to Alpha Centauri. Most of its stars are young, hot and blue. The cloudiness around the stars is starlight reflecting off a dust cloud through which the cluster is currently passing. Credit: NASA

My old friend Roy would recite those famous lines on winter nights observing together from my old suburban Chicago neighborhood. I have many memories of good times with the Pleiades and many associations, too. They’re always a reminder of the coming winter when they sail high across the southern sky. In mid-September the sisters make  their first appearance in the east around 10 o’clock.; by mid-October they’re up at 8.

The Pleiades are exactly what they appear to be – a real, physically connected cluster of stars. They coalesced from a cloud of dust and gas about 100 million years ago smack in the middle between the appearance of the first flowering plants and disappearance of the dinosaurs. Located about 440 light years from the Earth, the light you see tonight left the cluster in the late 1500s, some 30 years before Galileo first pointed his telescope at them. His sketch shows many more stars that you can see with the naked eye alone.

Sketches of the Pleiades by Galileo. Notice the line of stars stretching to the left of the “dipper”.

At a casual glance, you’ll probably see just five or six stars, but if you peer closely, the seventh, Pleione, will materialize. The real fun starts when you avert your vision and look around rather than directly at the cluster. A smattering of faint stars will suddenly pop into view boosting your total to 8, 10, 14??

Give it a try, then beam in on them with binoculars. Whoa! Instead of seven, you’ll see many dozens, including a most attractive stream of stars  shown so well in Galileo’s drawing.

I wish you smooth sailing with the daughters of the night.