Like many observers both casual and serious, I do not tire of gazing upon the little star cluster known as the Pleiades. I’ve seen the cluster a thousand times, but I’ll still stop and take a long look at it without optics while out for a walk on a winter’s night. Some night I’ll grab a pair of binoculars and make a closer inspection of the cluster, which fits perfectly in the field of view of such an instrument. And if it’s not too cold, I’ll pull out a telescope and a wide-field eyepiece and spend 20 minutes taking in the astonishing view of this group of blue-white stars that formed while dinosaurs still roamed the Earth. Which, in celestial terms, was not all that long ago.
Why keep looking at the Pleiades after so many years? The cluster doesn’t appear to change, of course, in the restricted timescale of a human life. But the Pleiades is a profoundly beautiful sight, as pleasing as a field of alpine wildflowers, and I never fail to see new patterns of stars both bright and dim that I hadn’t noticed before.
The pleasure of each new engagement with the Pleiades is far more striking when looking at new images of the cluster made by serious amateur astronomers working with ever-better equipment and image processing skills. The image at the top of this page, made by Terry Hancock at Grand Mesa Observatory in Colorado, shows a remarkably spectacular view of the Pleiades and its immediate interstellar surroundings.
You won’t see an image like this visually through a telescope. This is the result of 355 minutes of light collection with a 130mm f/5 Takahashi refractor and a highly-sensitive 36-megapixel color astronomy camera, as well as some formidable computing power and image processing acumen. The image shows the brilliant stars of this young star cluster embedded in an intricate and smoky web of extremely faint cold interstellar dust. Astronomers once thought the dust was left over from the formation of the star cluster itself. But it turns out the cluster is simply passing by chance through a dusty patch in a spiral arm of the Milky Way. In several tens of thousands of years, as the stars of the Pleiades move past this dust, they will regain a cleaner if less interesting appearance.
You can learn more details about this image at Terry’s Flickr page.
By engaging with the Pleiades, and all bright stars, we connect in a small way with cultures from around the world who observed and wondered about this little group and made it part of their folklore.
In Greek legend, of course, the Pleiades are the Seven Sisters, daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea nymph Pleione.
In Viking folklore, these stars are the hens of Freyja, the Norse goddess of love and procreation. The association with hens is part of other northern European folklore as well. I suppose even a goddess needs a flock of hens to keep things going when winter lasts seven months of the year.
The Chinese beheld the Pleiades as the mane or ‘hairy head’ of the Tiger, a congregation of stars composed of parts of the modern constellations Perseus, Aries, Cetus, and Taurus.
And the Lakota and Kiowa tribes of the American Great Plains linked these stars to what’s now called the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. The legend tells of seven little girls who were chased by bears and tried to escape by climbing a low rock. They begged the rock to help them, and it obliged by growing higher and higher until the girls were pushed safely into the sky. The seven girls became the Pleiades, while the grooves on Devil’s Tower are the marks the bear’s claws made as he tried to reach them.
The Pleiades are easy to find, of course, and I encourage you to take a careful look at them for yourself next time you’re out. Most people (including me) only see six stars in the cluster without optical aid, although some sharp-eyed stargazers claim to see nearly a dozen in dark sky. Binoculars or a telescope will reveal dozens or hundreds more. Astronomers have put the official population of this cluster at about 1,000 stars.
The Pleiades lies about 440 light years from Earth. But while Hancock made his image, the camera and the telescope collected light from much farther away. Look closely and you can see dozens of very distant galaxies that are hundreds of millions of light years away. The video above takes you on a little tour of the finer details of the above image. Hit pause from time to time while watching the video and examine these faint galaxies in the deepest of the deep sky.Share This: