Favorite Star Patterns

Pleiades – or 7 Sisters – known around the world

View at EarthSky Community Photos. | You can see the Pleiades even in moonlight. Soumyadeep Mukherjee in Kolkata, West Bengal, India, captured this photo of the Pleiades and the moon on September 26, 2021. Soumyadeep wrote: “On September 26, at midnight, an 80% illuminated moon and Pleiades (the Seven Sisters) came in a near-conjunction position in the night sky. The scene was made more interesting by the colorful lunar corona surrounding the moon.” Thanks again, Soumyadeep!

Come to know the legendary Pleiades star cluster

The Pleiades star cluster – famously known as the Seven Sisters or, to some, M45 – is visible from virtually every part of the globe. It’s seen from as far north as the North Pole and farther south than the southernmost tip of South America. It looks like a tiny misty dipper of stars.

If you’re familiar with the famous constellation Orion, it can help you be sure you’ve found the Pleiades. See the three stars in a row in Orion? That’s Orion’s Belt. Draw a line through these stars to the V-shaped pattern of stars with a bright star in its midst. The V-shaped pattern is the Face of Taurus the Bull. The bright star in the V – called Aldebaran – depicts the Bull’s Eye. A bit past Aldebaran, you’ll see the Pleiades cluster, which marks the Bull’s Shoulder.

In our Northern Hemispheres skies, the Pleiades cluster is associated with the coming winter season. It’s easy to imagine this misty patch of icy-blue suns as hoarfrost clinging to the dome of night. Frosty November is the month of the Pleiades, because it’s at this time that the Pleiades shine from dusk until dawn. But you can see the Pleiades cluster in the evening sky well into April.

If you can find the prominent constellation Orion, you can always find the Pleiades. Orion’s Belt points to the bright reddish star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus the Bull … then generally toward the Pleiades. You’ll find all of these objects up in the east by mid- to late-evening in November, and earlier as the months pass.

The Pleiades and Aldebaran

The star name Aldebaran comes from an Arabic word for follower. It’s thought to be a reference to this star’s forever chasing the Pleiades across the heavens. As a general rule, the Pleiades cluster rises into the eastern sky before Aldebaran rises, and sets in the west before Aldebaran sets.

The only exception to this rule happens at far southern latitudes – for example, at South America’s Tierra del Fuego – where the Pleiades rise a short while after Aldebaran rises.

Tom Wildoner in Weatherly, Pennsylvania, captured this image on October 31, 2016. He wrote: “It shows the Seven Sisters, Pleiades star cluster, rising in the east behind some maple trees still sporting some late leaves.” In this image, the bright star Aldebaran can also be seen, below the Pleiades, rising above the treeline.

Legend of the Lost Pleiad

Most people see six, not seven, Pleiades stars in a dark country sky.

However, the story about the lost seventh Pleiad appears universal. The astronomer Robert Burnham Jr. found the lost Pleiad myth prevalent in the star lore of European, African, Asian, Indonesian, Native American and Aboriginal Australian populations.

Moreover, Burnham suggested that the “lost Pleiad” may have basis in fact. Modern astronomy has found that the seventh-brightest Pleiades star – Pleione – is a complicated shell star that goes through numerous permutations. These changes cause this star to vary in brightness.

Plus, people with exceptional eyesight have been known to see many more stars in the cluster. Claims go up as high as 20 stars. Agnes Clerke, an astronomer and writer in the late 1800s, reported that Michael Maestlin, the mentor of Johannes Kepler, mapped out 11 Pleiades stars before the invention of the telescope.

To see more than six or seven Pleiades stars, you must have very good eyesight (or a pair of binoculars). And you must be willing to spend time under a dark, moonless sky. Stephen O’Meara, a dark-sky connoisseur, claims that eyes dark-adapted for 30 minutes are six times more sensitive to light than eyes dark-adapted for 15 minutes. The surest way to see additional Pleiades stars is to look at this cluster through binoculars or low power in a telescope.

The Lost Pleiad, a painting by French artist William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Pleiades cluster as a calendar

Historically, the Pleiades have served as a calendar for many civilizations. The Greek name Pleiades probably comes from a word meaning to sail. In the ancient Mediterranean world, the day that the Pleiades cluster first appeared in the morning sky before sunrise announced the opening of the navigation season.

The modern-day festival of Halloween originates from an old Druid rite that coincided with the midnight culmination of the Pleiades cluster. People believed the veil dividing the living from the dead is at its thinnest when the Pleiades culminates – reaches its highest point in the sky – at midnight.

On a lighter note, the Zuni of New Mexico call the Pleiades the Seed Stars, because this cluster’s disappearance in the evening sky every spring signals the seed-planting season.

In both myth and science, the Pleiades are sibling stars. Modern astronomers say the stars were born from the same cloud of gas and dust some 100 million years ago. This gravitationally bound cluster of several hundred stars looms some 430 light-years distant, and these sibling stars drift through space together at about 25 miles per second (40 km/sec). Many of these stars shine hundreds of times more brightly than our sun.

Pleiades photo gallery

View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Basudeb Chakrabarti in Pokhriabong, India, took this image of the Pleiades on November 6. Basudeb and Goutam Dey wrote: “Seven Sisters in the muddy cosmic field: The night was vey chilling and the sky was beautiful. We witnessed the rising and setting of the Seven Sisters. The Pleiades are an example of an open star cluster, a group of stars that were all born around the same time from a gigantic cloud of gas and dust. The brightest stars in the formation glow a hot blue and formed within the last 100 million years. They are extremely luminous and will burn out quickly, with life spans of only a few hundred million years, much shorter than the billions of years our sun will enjoy.” Thank you, Basudeb!
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | John Haggart in Globe, Arizona, captured this image of the Pleiades Cluster on November 6, 2021. John wrote: “I’ve always loved the Pleiades star cluster since my dad and I used to take his telescope out when I was a child.” Thank you, John!
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Michael Terhune in Lunenburg, Massachusetts, took this image of the Pleiades on November 6, 2021. Michael wrote: “Here’s an image of M45 or the Pleiades star cluster I captured. It’s really high in the sky now and is a great target for some visual viewing, as well as imaging. I really love the blue reflection nebula in this cluster, and it’s one of the best deep-sky objects out this time of year. It’s located just 444 light-years away in the constellation of Taurus. Clear skies!” Thank you, Michael!
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Soumyadeep Mukherjee in Pokhriabong, West Bengal, India, took this image of the Pleiades on November 5, 2021. Soumyadeep wrote: “The sisters among dust. In the frame: M45 and surroundings.” Thank you, Soumyadeep!
Tom Wildoner of the Dark Side Observatory wrote: “I was lucky on the evening on March 27, 2020, to capture this nice view of the planet Venus approaching the Pleiades star cluster in the constellation Taurus.” Thank you, Tom!
The Pleiades star cluster, as captured by Steve Pauken in Winslow, Arizona, in 2019. You can easily spot the Pleiades in the night sky. It looks like a tiny dipper.
Fred Espenak – aka Mr. Eclipse – posted this image at EarthSky Facebook on November 18, 2018. He wrote: “M45, the Pleiades star cluster. It’s visible on November nights in the eastern sky as a tiny dipper-shaped clump of stars. Definitely one of the most beautiful open star clusters in the sky. This image is a stack of 20 individual 5-minute exposures through a Takahashi Epsilon 180ED Hyperbolic Astrograph using a Canon 6D DSLR.” Thanks, Fred!
View larger. | Claire L. Shickora wrote from Delight’s Hot Springs Resort in California in early November 2018: “The Pleiades was outstanding, even with the local light pollution!”
The Pleiades – aka the Seven Sisters – captured by Greg Hogan in Kathleen, Georgia, on October 31, 2016.
The Pleiades star cluster by Ernie Rossi in Florida. Image from 2017. Russ Drum submitted it and wrote: “The Pleiades (aka the Seven Sisters) is an open star cluster located in the constellation Taurus the Bull. It’s also known as the Halloween Cluster because it’s almost overhead in the sky at midnight on Halloween, October 31.”

Bottom line: The Pleiades – or Seven Sisters – is a star cluster that’s a popular target for observers in the late fall and winter in the Northern Hemisphere.

November 14, 2021
Favorite Star Patterns

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Bruce McClure

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