Favorite Star Patterns

The Pleiades – or 7 Sisters – known around the world

EarthSky’s Marcy Curran introduces you to the Pleiades, or 7 Sisters, in this video.

Come to know the legendary Pleiades star cluster

The Pleiades star cluster is also famously known as the Seven Sisters. Or, to some, it’s known as Messier 45 (M45) on the list of Messier objects. The Pleiades is visible from almost 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.

In fact, many ancient cultures had myths and stories associated with the Pleiades. In Greek mythology, the Pleiades were the seven daughters of Atlas, a Titan who held up the sky, and the oceanid Pleione, protectress of sailing. The sisters were Maia, Electra, Alcyone, Taygete, Asterope, Celaeno and Merope. The Pleiades were sometimes said to be nymphs in the train of Artemis. They were half-sisters of the seven Hyades. The Hyades pattern is another star cluster near the Pleiades stars.

According to a Polynesian legend, the Pleiades was once a single star: the brightest in the sky. The Polynesian god Tane disliked this star bragging about its beauty. So the god smashed the star into pieces, creating the Pleiades star cluster.

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.

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Some blue bright points very close to each other. There are also smaller blue and orange dots in the background.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Harshwardhan Pathak from Heaven’s Mirror Observatory in Australia shared this composite image and wrote: “The Pleiades, (M45), is an open cluster of young stars in the zodiacal constellation Taurus, about 440 light-years from the solar system. It contains a large amount of bright nebulous material and more than 1,000 stars, of which 6 or 7 can be seen by the unaided eye. I was working on this project 3 months ago, this image was shot between September to November (2023), and I was able to capture this for 16 hours due to busy sessions on the remote telescopes. However, I was very happy that I was able to capture some of the H-alpha signals (reddish regions) which are very faint.” Thank you, the waiting was so worth it!

Sibling stars traveling through space together

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. Also, these sibling stars drift through space together at about 25 miles per second (40 kilometers per second). Many of these stars shine hundreds of times more brightly than our sun.

Several bright bluish stars relatively close together, with bluish nebula around them, in star field.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Andy Dungan of Cotopaxi, Colorado, captured this image of the Pleiades star cluster on November 5, 2023. Thank you, Andy!

How to find the Pleiades

If you’re familiar with the famous constellation Orion the Hunter, it can help you confirm you’ve found the Pleiades. See the three stars in a row in Orion? That’s Orion’s Belt. Now 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. Then, when you go a bit past Aldebaran, you’ll see the Pleiades cluster. It marks the Bull’s Shoulder.

Sky chart with arrow from Orion's Belt to star Aldebaran. The Pleiades is in the upper right.
If you can find the prominent constellation Orion, you can always find the Pleiades. That’s because 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 it’ll be up earlier as the months pass.

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. So frosty November is the month of the Pleiades, because it’s at this time that the Pleiades shines from dusk until dawn. But you can see the Pleiades cluster in the evening sky well into April.

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, Pleiades rises a short while after Aldebaran rises.

Star field with 2 big, bright, reddish star-like objects and little bunch of bright blue stars.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Jeremy Likness in Monroe, Washington, captured this view of the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters on January 8, 2023.They are located in the constellation Taurus the Bull. This photograph also shows the planet Mars as it passed along the stars in the constellation Taurus. He wrote: “A winter triangle: the bright star Aldebaran, Mars and M45: The Pleiades were bright and clear in the winter sky.” Thank you, Jeremy!

Legend of the Lost Sister

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

However, the story about the lost 7th 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 7th-brightest Pleiades star – Pleione – is a complicated shell star that goes through numerous permutations. Naturally, these changes can 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. But the surest way to see additional Pleiades stars is to look at this cluster using some optical aid.

The Pleiades photo gallery

Large area of fuzzy blue cloudiness with dozens of bright white stars immersed within.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Irwin Seidman in Bruce Peninsula, Ontario, Canada, captured this telescopic view of the Pleiades star cluster on January 14, 2023. He wrote: “Located about 444 light-years from Earth, Messier 45 (aka M45, The Pleiades, The Seven Sisters) is an asterism and open star cluster in the constellation Taurus. Reflection nebulae around hot blue luminous stars give the Pleiades its somewhat eerie and spectacular glow.” Thank you, Irwin!
City lights in valley, with reddish erupting volcano behind and reddish lunar eclipse high above.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | David Rojas captured this image from Pacaya volcano in San Vicente Pacaya, Guatemala, during the total lunar eclipse on November 8, 2022. David wrote: “In the image you can see the moon in its total phase with its characteristic red color of a lunar eclipse, above the moon is the star cluster of Las Pleyades [the Pleiades, or 7 Sisters] and below the Fuego volcano (with lava) and Acatenango.” Thank you, David!
Many stars of Pleiades star cluster beside fuzzy, overexposed bright moon.
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.” Thank you, Soumyadeep!

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 26, 2023
Favorite Star Patterns

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