The Pleiades star cluster is one of the top showpieces of the night sky. This beautiful bouquet of blue-white stars stands out well on autumn and winter evenings.
There are hundreds of star clusters within reach of a small telescope and even binoculars. Only two stars clusters, however, are close enough to us in the galaxy for us to see their splendor with unaided eyes, and the Pleiades is the brightest and most stunning.
Cluster stars were formed from the same nebula of dust and gas, and have traveled space together ever since, bound by gravity and we hope by brotherly love.
How many stars can you count within the Pleiades, without using binoculars or a telescope? Most people with normal eyesight can detect five or six but you may be able to discern seven Another name for the Pleiades is the "Seven Sisters," from with the Greek mythological story behind the star cluster.
Astronomers, however, count over 1,000 stars in this cluster. Unaided eyes detect only the very brightest of them. Binoculars and especially a small telescope will reveal many others. Some keen-eyed folk, under excellent skies have seen even more without optical aid.
The cluster lies about 444 light years from the Sun and is around 13 light years wide.
Hard to imagine? A light year is the distance, about 5.8 TRILLION miles, that light travels in one earth year. A "light year" is a measurement of distance, not time.
Thirteen light years is approximately half the distance from Earth to the bright star Vega.
The closest star system to us is Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light years away. The Pleiades is about three times wider than that.
Imagine the brilliancy of the Pleiades’ principal stars if you were on a planet in the middle of the cluster!
Photographs quickly reveal a nebula of dust in which the Pleiades is passing through. The starlight from the Pleiades reflects off the dust with a bluish glow. With a 10 inch telescope you can dimly detect part of the nebula near the bright cluster stars.
The five brightest stars form a tiny dipper shape, not to be confused with the Little Dipper in the northern sky, which includes the North Star. The "handle star" of the Pleiades "dipper" is named Atlas, and is at bottom left (southeast) as seen from the northern hemisphere. The stars making up the Pleiades’ "bowl" are, going clockwise from bottom left, are Alcyone, Maia, Electra and Merope. Right by Atlas is a dimmer star, Pleione, and just north of Maia is the star Taygeta. Pleione and Taygeta are harder to see with eyes alone.
In early December at around 8 p.m., the Pleiades shine high up in the south-east (as seen from mid-northern latitudes).
New Moon is on December 7.