These nights, the Pleiades—also called the Seven Sisters—appear at nightfall, lowish in the west, directly above where the Sun sets. As a bonus, the orange planet Mars is now traveling just to their left. See how to spot the Pleiades!
Spot the Pleiades
- At nightfall, look towards the west, low in the sky directly above where the Sun just set.
- You will see the Pleiades star cluster, a group of six stars. It’s an obvious sight if you have dark, clear skies.
- Also, look for the planet Mars which orbits right near the Pleiades (as shown in the photo above). Photo credit: abhijitpatilphoto.com and www.instagram.com/abhijitcpatilphotography.
- If you can’t spot Mars, there’s an even brighter orange star to the left of Mars called Aldebaran; this star is the bull’s sparkling eye in the constellation Taurus.
- On April 7 to 9, the Moon sweeps by the Pleiades which provides another marker. See the diagram below from Sky and Telescope.
As Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote:
Many a night I saw the Pleiades rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glittering like a swarm of fireflies, tangled in a silver braid.
What a beautiful image!
Pleiades Legend and Lore
No obstetrician attended the birth of the Pleiades, 120 million years ago. As these fiercely hot suns awakened from the dazzling and dangerous gaseous nursery, the newborn stars materialized like a distant sunrise in the skies of Earth 400 lightyears away.
In ancient times, the Pleiades had a strange sinister reputation. Such medieval rituals as the pagan Black Sabbath and All Hallow’s Eve (which evolved into our own Halloween) were set to occur when the Pleiades reached their highest point at midnight. Some have speculated that the rituals could have originated as a sort of commemoration of some ancient catastrophe that resulted in great loss of life. Some believe they may be linked to the Atlantis myth, itself perhaps a legend evolved from the awesome eruption of the Santorini Volcano in 1450 BC that devastated the Minoan civilization on nearby Crete.
The Pleiades had an odd importance to civilizations throughout time and around the world. In Egypt they were revered as one of the forms of the goddess Isis. In ancient Persia the date in which they reached their highest midnight ascendancy was marked with ceremony. In Mayan and Aztec culture, this same yearly occasion had a forbidding undertone and was given tremendous importance.
Subaru (the Car)
In Japan, their ancient name is Subaru. For decades, the six companies that merged to produce automobiles in 1953 placed a crude star map of the Pleiades on each of their cars. Over the years, one star has been portrayed as brighter and increasingly separated from the others. Does this reveal some cryptic corporate infighting?
The real thrill comes when the proper instrument is pointed their way. Not a giant telescope; that would be a mistake. Far better is a simple pair of binoculars, because low power and wide field are the ticket. Suddenly dozens spring into visibility, and their blue-white color becomes obvious as well. Indeed, this is probably your binocular’s single most amazing celestial vista.
But, to the naked eye, most people count exactly six stars. So why are they called the Seven Sisters? Why have civilizations as disparate as the ancient Greeks, Australian aborigines, and Japanese all possessed legends of the “lost Pleiad” which have persisted through the centuries? Even two thousand years ago, a Greek poet wrote:
“… their number seven, though the myths often say … that one has passed away.”
One clue is that, as binoculars reveal, they’re blue—a color that indicates stellar youth. Young hot stars are often unstable, gobbling up their nuclear fuel in an adolescent frenzy that frequently produces instability.
They’re in their infancy even today. And, since such massive stars die young, the Pleiades will be long gone when most of the galaxy’s stars are still enjoying middle age. Toddling gracefully across April’s skies, the newborn sisters are only for now.