Looking Up: Pleiades shining high in south
The Pleiades Star Cluster shines high in the south in early evening, in the latter half of January. Its approximately due south at 8 p.m. Among the wonderful star patterns and celestial objects awaiting any observers with eyes alone the next clear night, finding the Pleiades has to be on the top 10 list.
(This column is written assuming you are in the mid-northern latitudes.)
Thousands of star clusters may be tracked down with a backyard telescope, each one quite unique. There are two types, open star clusters which tend to have much few members and are more loose, and tightly compacted globular clusters that can be described as “star cities.”
The Pleiades is one of the closest open star clusters to the Sun, and therefore is among the brightest and easiest to see.
About 444 light years away, it takes that long for its combined starlight to reach Earth. How many stars can you count in the Pleiades? Most people can see six, but with good eyesight, well-adapted to the night and under a dark, rural sky, some have counted as many as 18 or 19. The cluster is also known as the “Seven Sisters” from the ancient mythological stories applied to this bunch of stars. Perhaps you can find the seventh!
Binoculars will reveal many more stars than eyes alone. It is a stunning sight.
The six brightest starts form a pattern of a “little dipper” but this is not the same as the “Little Dipper” star group which contains the North Star. That group is another name for the constellation Ursa Minor the Little Bear, and is visible due north opposite the Big Dipper.
Clusters travel space together, born in a common cosmic cloud and bound by gravity and we like to think, “sibling affection.”
You may have seen photographs of the Pleiades with its stars shrouded in a nebula- a cosmic dust cloud. The Pleiades happens to be traveling right through a nebula, and the cluster’s light reflects off the dust. It is barley detectable in mid-size telescopes commonly used by amateur astronomers.
Be sure to turn to the southwest and marvel at the brilliant planet Venus, shining high in the evening. The planet Mars is to the upper left, a lot dimmer, and reddish. In the morning hours look southeast for the very bright planet Jupiter. The bright star Spica, not nearly as bright as the planet, is close by at this time, below Jupiter.
The Big Dipper in early evenings of late January is seen low in the north-northeast, standing up and seemingly balancing on its “handle.” If you look at 4 a.m. you will see that the Big Dipper is high up in the north.
In the early evening hours, the bright constellation Orion, marked by its trio of “Belt” stars, bright red star Betelgeuse and bright white star Rigel, is high in the southeast (due south around 9:30 p.m.). The brightest star of the night sky, blue-white Sirius, glows to the lower left of Orion. Crane you neck high up; near the zenith (overhead) is the very bright yellow star Capella.
This is only some of the highlights. Find a star map and night sky observer’s guide at your public library, buy a copy of Astronomy or Sky & Telescope Magazine, or look online. If using the chart outside, cover the flashlight with red paper to protect your “night vision.”
It’s a wonderful way to spend a while in the evening, out under the stars.
New Moon is ion January 27.
Keep Looking Up!
— Peter Becker is Managing Editor at The News Eagle in Hawley, PA. Notes are welcome at email@example.com. Please mention in what newspaper or web site you read this column.