Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Finding the Pleiades

I'm ashamed to admit this, but I wrote an entire play based on the Greek myth of the Pleiades without knowing how to sight the Pleiades star cluster. The instructions I found tended to presuppose more astronomical knowledge than I had: "Find Capella, then find Aldebaran". And just what does a "star cluster" look like, anyway?

But then I discovered two key facts (source):
  1. If you follow the stars in Orion's belt in a straight line to the right, you will eventually hit the Pleiades.
  2. You can recognize the Pleiades because they are shaped like a mini-Dipper.  We're talking a cute, tiny Dipper shape, much smaller than the actual Little Dipper. 
It's easy!  On a dark, clear night, find Orion and mentally extend the line of his belt to the right until you hit the dipper-shaped cluster.  If you want to be sure you're on the right track, about halfway between Orion and the Pleiades is a very bright reddish star: Aldebaran, in the constellation Taurus.

Caveats: If there's too much light pollution, you can't see the Pleiades (they are dimmer than Orion and Aldebaran). Also, these are winter constellations, so if you are in the Northern Hemisphere you have only about a month more to view them this season. Currently, they are best seen in the early evening, just an hour or two after sundown.

The Pleiades are small, but distinctive, and many cultures have incorporated them into their mythology. I myself realized that while stargazing in years past, I had observed a cute little Dipper-shaped grouping -- I just had never known that it was the Pleiades. When I finally learned how to sight them using the "Orion's belt" method, I felt like I was seeing an old friend.

"Hello, girls," I said.


Marguerite said...

You could've just asked the astronomer... :)

Madi said...

Interesting fact: people often say there are 7 stars in the pleiades. But there are hundreds. If your eye sight is good enough to see 7 stars, then your eye sight is good enough to see 8 stars. So you never actually see 7 stars.

Marissa Skudlarek said...

I know, I should have used my astronomical friends as resources :-) Six stars are all I can see, but, you know, I've never had good eyesight.