Jimmy Westlake: Meet the Seven Sisters

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High overhead as darkness falls on cold January evenings is a tiny cluster of stars that often is mistaken for the Little Dipper. Although it does have a dipper shape to it, with a tiny little bowl and tiny little handle, its real name is the Pleiades, and it is popularly known as the Seven Sisters. A person with average vision should be able to see six stars in the cluster with no difficulty and a bit of careful searching should reveal the seventh faint star as well. A person with exceptional vision might make out as many as 8, 9, or even 10 stars with their unaided eye. How many can you see?

The name "Seven Sisters" is actually a misnomer because only 5 of the 7 naked-eye stars are sisters. The other two stars represent the parents, Atlas, the father, and Pleione, the mother. In order of decreasing brightness, the seven brightest stars are named Alcyone, Atlas, Electra, Maia, Merope, Taygeta, and Pleione. The other two sisters, at the edge of visibility, are Celaeno and Sterope. A simple pair of binoculars will clearly reveal the entire family, and many dozens more stars to boot!

Mythology explains that the big brute Orion the Hunter, also seen in the winter stars, was chasing the beautiful daughters of Atlas and Pleione. Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, heard their cries for help and transformed the maidens into white doves so that they could escape Orion's lustful pusuit. They flew high into the heavens and are still seen today as our Pleiades star cluster.

A more modern, scientific explanation for the lovely cluster of stars is that they were, indeed, all born as siblings from the same cloud of hydrogen gas about 10-million years ago. There are more than 500 member stars in the Pleiades cluster, all lying about 410 light years away from our solar system. That means, when you look at the Pleiades star cluster, you are seeing it as it was 410 years ago!

Although the Pleiades stood alone as a separate constellation for many centuries, modern astronomers have included it within the boundaries of our constellation of Taurus, the Bull. The tiny cluster lies on the bull's shoulder.

On the evenings of January 26 and 27, the gibbous moon will appear very close to the Pleiades. Use your binoculars to see the faint cluster stars against the bright moonlight.

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