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    My Journey through the Astronomical Year

    Think of this as a "companion text" to this, the main web site. Not required reading, butI hope you'll find it interesting and helpful.

Look East in February 2014: Two dogs – plus Jupiter – rising in a star-spangled spectacular – the Winter Hexagon

We have two “dog stars” on the southeastern horizon early on February evenings  – Sirius and Procyon – and  both are part of what is certainly the brightest, star-spangled  section of our northern night sky – the Winter Hexagon.  Adding to this annual dazzle in 2014 – and brighter than any star – is the “wandering star” (i.e., planet) Jupiter, smack in the middle of the Gemini twins -about halfway between their heads and feet.

Here’s how the Winter Hexagon looked to the camera of Jimmy Westlake who took this gorgeous shot as it loomed over Stagecoach, Colorado, USA.  You may not see the faint band of the Milky Way shown here if you live in a light polluted region, but you certainly should be able to pick out the bright stars that outline the Hexagon, as well as the Pleiades star cluster visible near the top and just right of center.

Click on image for much larger view! (Copyright © 2007-2011 JRWjr Astrophotography. All rights reserved.)

Look carefully at that photo, then compare it with this star chart, which is what we see from mid-northern latitudes as we look southeast early on a February evening.

Click image for much larger version. To get the full beauty of this section of sky find an area with a clear horizon to the southeast and go out on a February evening a couple of hours after sunset. The chart shows what you'll see. The link below provides a small black-on-white version you can print and take into the field. (Prepared from a Stellarium screen shot.)

Click image for much larger version. To get the full beauty of this section of sky find an area with a clear horizon to the southeast and go out on a February evening a couple of hours after sunset. The chart shows what you’ll see. The link below provides a small black-on-white version you can print and take into the field. (Prepared from a Stellarium screen shot.)

For a printer-friendly version of this chart, click here.

People in the north tend to think that the stars are brighter in winter because the air is so cool and crisp. That certainly could be a factor. But the simple fact is our winter sky is dominated by a whole lot of very bright stars. In fact, visible from earth are 22 stars of first magnitude. Sixteen  of these are visible from the Northern Hemisphere, and half of these are visible in the area of the Winter Hexagon on a February evening. That means nearly all these bright stars are jammed into a space taking up less than one-quarter of the February night sky – which is  just one-eighth of the total night sky we can see through the year! In other words, if bright stars like these were scattered throughout the night sky evenly there would be 64 first magnitude stars instead of just 22. Add to that the seven bright stars of the Big Dipper being dragged up the northeastern sky by the Great Bear on a February evening, and it is no wonder that in the dead of a northern winter our skies offer a lively, colorful, star-spangled spectacular.

The Hexagon alone contains seven of the first magnitude stars in our sky and an eighth that is the brightest second magnitude star we see. This one – Castor – just misses being first magnitude by a hair.  And nearby is Adhara, a star that sits right on the border between second and first magnitude; plus Regulus, another first magnitude star, is rising low in the east. Whew! That’s a lot. Let’s review.  Going  counterclockwise and starting at the bottom, the Hexagon’s corners are marked by:

  • Sirius, the brightest, and at about eight light years one of the closest, stars in our sky – except the Sun, of course.
  • Rigel, the blue giant that marks one of Orion’s feet.
  • Aldebaran, the brilliant orange star that is the eye of Taurus the Bull and dominates the nearest open star cluster, the Hyades.
  • Capella, now high overhead, is really a complex of four stars that we see as one.
  • Castor and Pollux, the twins, one of which (Pollux) is first magnitude, while Castor is the brightest second magnitude star we see.
  • Procyon, the “Little Dog” star, which is dim only in comparison to Sirius, the “Big Dog.”

And . . .

  • Inside the Hexagon is another first magnitude star, Betelgeuse, the red giant that marks Orion’s shoulder, not to mention the three bright stars of Orion’s Belt – all second magnitude.
  • Regulus, the “Little King,” is a first magnitude star that is rising in the east and bringing us the familiar sickle of bright stars that mark the head of the lion. We’ll study it closely next month.
  • Adhara is the western-most star of the distinctive small triangle of stars beneath Sirius. At magnitude 1.5 I call it a first magnitude star, but others consider this second magnitude. So depending on how you count Adhara there are either 21 or 22 first magnitude stars.

Before leaving the Winter Hexagon, I must stress that  this is not simply a northern hemisphere show – if you live  in Sydney, Australia, you could just rename this the “Summer Hexagon.” I see these stars in the southeast – my friends in Sydney see them in the northeast of their sky – and, of course, since they’re “standing on their heads,” they see them a bit differently – something like this!

The “Winter Hexagon” becomes the “Summer Hexagon” in the Southern Hemisphere, but contains all the same bright stars. (Chart prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

February Guidepost Stars

Of the stars mentioned so far, the two dog stars, Sirius and Procyon, plus the fence sitter, Adhara, are the guidepost stars to learn this month. They are the ones you can spot near the southeastern horizon, coming into view about 45 minutes to an hour after sunset. (We’ll have more to say about Regulus next month, and the other stars mentioned we’ve met in previous months.) To see the February guidepost stars – and the asterism of the Virgins –  look low in the southeast about 45 minutes to an hour after sunset.  Here’s what you should see.

Click image for larger version. This chart shows the three guidepost stars for February as they appear about an hour after sunset in the southeast. Sirius is the brightest star we see and Procyon is not far behind, but Adhara is not much brighter than its companions, which form a distinctive, small triangle the ancient Arabs knew simply as “the Virgins.” (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

For a printer-friendly version of this chart, click here.

Procyon, the seventh brightest star we see, is first up in our sky, and thus the highest, of these three. To the southeast and a tad lower is brilliant Sirius, brightest star in our sky, and next to the North Star, Polaris, probably the best known star in the world. Adhara is the brightest star in the “Virgins,” a simple,  distinctive  triangle asterism. But, of course, Sirius is dominant – far brighter than any other star we see in our night sky. I always think of Sirius as the eye of the great dog and as he sits, the triangle seems to be his rear haunches. From our perspective Adhara may be just another bright star, but of these three it is really the brightest by far – it’s just much farther away than the other two.  If we compared them side by side we would find that Procyon shines with the light of seven Suns, Sirius 23, and Adhara has a luminosity to the eye of 3,700 Suns! Now that’s bright.  And in another way, Adhara reveals our human bias, for if we had ultraviolet vision Adhara would be the brightest star in our sky, not Sirius. But again – that’s not the way we see it. From our perspective, Sirius and Procyon are very bright because they are very close to Earth. Sirius, at a little more than eight light years is the closest star that we in the mid-northern latitudes see in our night sky. Procyon, at about 11 light years, is fourteenth on the list of nearest stars.  Most of the stars that are nearer than Procyon are also much fainter – in fact, too faint to see with the naked eye. If we count just those stars bright enough to see with the naked eye, Procyon is the sixth closest and Sirius is the second closest.  (The closest star, Alpha Centauri, is visible only to those in, or near, the Southern Hemisphere.) But Adhara? Adhara is 405  light years away – about the same distance as the North Star, Polaris. Sirius will frequently seem to be changing colors, but that’s just the effect of our atmosphere. Just as our atmosphere makes our Sun look red when it is rising or setting, it makes any bright star near the horizon appear to dance and change colors rapidly.

The Big Dog as Johannes Bayer depicted him in 1603. (Image courtesy of Linda Hall library of Science, Engineering and Technology.)
The Little Dog as shown in the 1603 Uranometria chart. (Image courtesy of Linda Hall library of Science, Engineering and Technology.)

Sirius is known as a “dog star” because it is the brightest star of the classic constellation, Canis Major – the Big Dog. Procyon is the brightest star in the constellation Canis Minor, the Little Dog. When you look at these constellations as depicted in early star charts, it’s hard to see how connecting the dots makes the stars take the forms the constellation’s name implies, but the images are still useful memory joggers.

Modern science, though, gives us even more reason to remember these two stars, or rather the faint companion stars that orbit them. These are designated Procyon B and Sirius B and they defy our ability to even imagine because there’s just nothing in our down-to-earth experiences that compare with these tiny stars.  One of these “pups”  – the one belonging to Procyon – is impossible to see with a backyard telescope and the other an extreme challenge.  The reason is they are quite dim and being very close to the bright stars, get lost in the glare.

But the mystery of these two fainter stars is that they are both white, indicating they are among the hottest of stars. So how could something be that hot, that close to us, and yet so dim? And the answer is more mind-boggling than the question – they are both white dwarfs, and white dwarfs are a class of stars far denser than anything we encounter on Earth. Now I always find talk of the density of stars counter-intuitive because it gets drilled into our heads that stars are gas and the gas we encounter in our daily lives is anything but dense!  In fact, it’s quite – well – gaseous!  To appreciate this, let’s take a close look at our own Sun.

Click image for larger view.Sirius – with Sirius B at lower left.  Credit: NASA, H.E. Bond and E. Nelan (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md.); M. Barstow and M. Burleigh (University of Leicester, U.K.); and J.B. Holberg (University of Arizona)

The Sun is a ball of gas which reaches densities that near the center are sixteen times that of lead!  That alone should stretch your mind. But now imagine the white dwarf. The stuff that makes up a white dwarf is about one million times denser than the stuff in the Sun.

Jim Kaler writes that if you had a billiard ball made up of the stuff of one of these white dwarfs it would weigh about 70 tons – roughly the weight of an M1 Abrams tank. (Think of what that would do to your pool table, not to mention your foot if it fell on it!)

We know this because we can calculate the mass of the stars by their orbit around their bigger, brighter companions. The result is, we end up with a mass roughly that of the Sun but a size roughly that of the Earth. You can fit one million Earths – and therefore one million white dwarfs – inside the Sun. (See why a white dwarf is one million times as dense as the Sun?)

How do you take all that mass and squeeze it down to such a small size? The physics of how that’s done goes way beyond me, but if you want to put a name to it, a white dwarf consists of “degenerate matter.” Unlike other stars, white dwarfs no longer burn with nuclear fires. In fact, they are no longer burning at all. They are the dying embers of stars – and in the case of the “pups,” the embers are being seen while still white hot. But they will eventually cool.

The name white dwarfs is given to this class of stars, but in truth not all white dwarfs are white – some can even be red. To make sense of this contradiction of terms, just think about an ordinary dying ember and how its color will change as it cools. So it is with these dying stars. Unable to generate any heat, what they radiate they lose.

This is also the ultimate fate scientists expect for our Sun.  As it eventually exhausts its nuclear energy, it will turn into a bloated red giant like Betelgeuse in Orion.  Later still it will blow off its outer shell of gases, turning into a planetary nebula, such as the Ring Nebula (M57) in Lyra.  And at the core of that nebula will be the dying ember we know as a white dwarf.

I’ve never seen the white dwarf that revolves around Sirius, but perhaps this season I will. Orbits are not circles, but ellipses. This means that sometimes there’s more distance between Sirius and its “pup” than at other times – and we happen to be in a period of several years when that distance will be growing, and so it will become easier to see the pup in a good, backyard telescope. (Sirius B completes an orbit around Sirius A in 50.2 years. Procyon B, while visible to professionals, is just simply too difficult a target for most backyard telescopes.) I also plan to take a close look at Adhara with a telescope, for it has a 7.5 magnitude companion just 7 arcseconds away. This should be a challenge – because of the difference in brightness of the two –  but not nearly the challenge that seeing the companion of Sirius is. For those with binoculars and small telescopes, some of the most fascinating objects are in this general area of sky, near, or inside the Winter Hexagon, including the Pleiades, the great Orion Nebula, and the spectacular telescopic open clusters in Gemini and Auriga, M35, M36, M37, and M38. All that star light certainly can make for bright nights during the dark  of a northern winter.

Vital Stats for the Guidepost Stars

For Procyon:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 0.38, the 7th brightest star in our sky. Shines with the luminosity of about 7 Suns.
  • Distance: 11.4 light years
  • Spectral Type: F
  • Position: 07h:39m:18s, +5°:13′:29″
  • Procyon B is magnitude 10.7 and orbits Procyon in 40.8 years.  It can be as close as 9 AU to Procyon (1 AU is the distance between the Earth and Sun), or as far as  21 AU.

For Sirius:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude -1.5,  the brightest star in our sky.  Shines with the luminosity of about 23 Suns.
  • Distance: 8.6 light years
  • Spectral Type: A
  • Position: 06h:45m:09s, -16°:42′:58″
  • Sirius B is magnitude 8.3 and orbits Sirius in 50.2 years. It can be as close as 8.1 AU to Sirius, or as far as 31.5 AU. (It will reach this greatest separation in 2019.)

For Adhara:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 1.5, it has a luminosity to the eye of 3500 times that of the Sun! (In other words, much brighter, really, than Procyon or Sirius.)
  • Distance: 405 light years
  • Spectral Type: B2
  • Position: 06h:59m, -28°:59′:18″

Look East in December 2013 – take the Pleiades challenge!

“Glitter like a swarm of fireflies, Tangled in a silver braid.”  – (Words from Tennyson, photo from NASA.) No you don’t see the Pleiades star cluster quite like this with your naked eye, but binoculars and small telescopes give you an awesome view. I should add, however, that the nebulosity that surrounds them is difficult to see even with optical aid.

The focus for those learning the stars this month is the beautiful star cluster, the Pleiades, and while charming to those with dark skies and good eyesight,  I guarantee you it will look far better in just about any binoculars you point towards it.   When you look east starting about 45 minutes to an hour after sunset, here’s what you should see.

Click imager for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Click imager for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.)

Go here to download a printer-friendly version of this chart.

Capella, which we met last month, dominates the northeast and now it’s easy to pick out the familiar kite figure which, lead by Capella, covers the heart of the constellation Auriga. About parallel with Capella, but south of it will be the Pleiades – but don’t expect to see them well until it gets darker. You may pick them up with binoculars an hour after sunset, but to really appreciate them, wait an hour and a half after sunset.

East of the Pleiades – below it as you look at the eastern sky – is the bright guidepost star, Aldebaran. It highlights a “V” asterism that marks the head of Taurus the Bull. Dominant as it is, imagine just for a moment what it would be like if Aldebaran were our Sun. James Kaler points out that it would span 20 degrees in our sky – our Sun spans half a degree! So rising in the east, it would nearly fill the space between the Pleiades and the horizon. Get the following vision of Aldebaran in your head as you gaze to the east on a December evening.

Aldebaran, looking like the “Great Pumpkin” of Peanuts comic fame, would overwhelm us with its orange brilliance and dominate our sky if it were as close to us as our Sun. (Actually, if we were this close to Aldebaran we would be overwhelmed – charred to a crisp!)

Aldebaran is what is classified as a “giant,”  and it is indeed huge when compared to our Sun, but there are many stars much larger. It’s the 14th brightest star in our sky – compare it to Capella and you will notice that Capella is  brighter.  Aldebaran is 67 light years away – reasonably close – and in the ecliptic – the path the Sun, Moon, and planets take in our sky. This means it frequently flirts with Mars and at such times it’s fun to compare the color of these two reddish objects. It also gets occulted, from time to time, by our Moon – meaning the Moon passes in front of it. Its surface temperature is a bit lower than our Sun’s, thus the orange tint. It radiates quite a lot of its energy in infrared and is about 425 times as luminous as our Sun.

Vital stats for Aldebaran (al-DEB-ah-ran)

• Brilliance: Magnitude .85; its luminosity is the equal of 425 Suns.
• Distance: 67 light years
• Spectral Types: K5
• Position: 04:36, +16:32

Aldebaran appears to be the brightest star in another star cluster, the Hyades. In reality, it is not part of that cluster, for it’s much closer to us.  Its name – Aldebaran – means “follower” – for it appears to follow the Pleiades up the sky.  (Actually, skywatchers sometimes use the terms “precedes” and “follows” to indicate sky direction. A star that “follows” is to the east of the object it is following – and one that precedes, is to the west.)

In classical depictions of the constellations, Aldebaran is the “bull’s eye,” and  the “V” of stars near it is the bull’s head. But that V is, as mentioned ,  another open star cluster, the Hyades.

Taurus, as depicted in Uranometria (Bayer, 1603), showing Aldebran as one of his eyes. (Used with permission from the  Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, & Technolog.)

Hyades and Pleiades

Now what’s fun here is to pause a moment and go back and forth between the Hyades and the Pleiades. Both are open star clusters, and in reality they cover roughly the same area of space – about a dozen light years – but, you will notice immediately that the Hyades appear much larger. There’s a simple reason for that – the Hyades are just 151 light years away, while the Pleiades are more like 400 light years from us.

A careful observer will also notice that the Hyades tend to be yellowish stars, while the Pleiades are icy, blue diamonds. That’s because the Hyades at 660 million years are about ten times as old as the Pleiades. Of course, in astronomical terms both contain young stars, our Sun being about 5 billion years old and our galaxy something like 12 billion years. But the few hundred million years of age the Hyades has over the Pleiades means it does contain more yellow stars.

One more thing you might notice about the Pleiades – they look like a tiny dipper – in fact, I’ve had more than one visitor ask me if this is the “Little Dipper.” I guess you could call it “The Littlest Dipper!” You also could call it “Subaru.”   That’s the Japanese name  for  this little purse of celestial gemstones,  and the car maker does include them in its logo. And here are a couple of Pleiades challenges for you:

1. How many Pleiads can you see with the naked eye?

2. And can you see – with naked eye, binoculars, or telescope – the faint nebulosity that surrounds these stars?

It was that nebulosity that apparently inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson as he penned this famous tribute in “Lockesley Hall”:

Many a night I saw the Pleiades,
Rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fireflies
Tangled in a silver braid.

Beautiful, but no words or image can do justice to the live, real-time experience of standing outside on a crisp December evening, raising binoculars to your eyes, and seeing these icy diamonds! (Oh they can be seen with the naked eye, but binoculars give a much better view.)

Even without binoculars, the Pleiades can be quite dazzling for those with good eyes and dark skies. Not me. With my aging eyes they tend to blend together, and even when I put my glasses on I can only with care see four or five separate stars. Younger eyes do much better.

So how many stars do you see? Take your time. Patience is the key. I suggest you get a comfortable beach chair, lean back, relax, and look for at least a solid minute at a time.  How many should you see? I suspect most people who take the time to observe carefully get as many as six to 10.  Walter Scott Houston, who wrote a Sky and Telescope magazine column when astronomy was new to me in the 1950s, counted 18 with the naked eye! And the visual observer I most  admire today, Stephen James O’Meara, says in his book “The Messier Objects:”

Although largely symbolic, the age-old association of the Pleiades with the number seven remains fixed to this day – to the point that some observers swear they cannot see more than seven members, even though the Pleiades contains 10 stars brighter than 6th magnitude. Some observers question how it is possible to see 10 Pleiads in The Seven Sisters (a demonstration of the power of words . . . ) The fact is that almost three times that magic number of stars can be seen without magnification by an astute observer under dark skies.

O’Meara says he logged 17 while observing in Cambridge, MA – which hardly has dark skies.  “The trick,” he says, “is to spend a lot of time looking and plotting.” This business of “time on target” is something I find hard to convey to new observers. But it is the key. Another key is simply experience. I frequently see things that those with younger eyes don’t see, simply because I’ve seen them before and know exactly what to expect. Crossen and Tirion in their book “Binocular Astronomy” have this general piece of advice, which certainly applies here:

When I first began observing with binoculars I could not see the Rosette Nebula at all, but now it is not difficult for me even under poor sky conditions.
The most important thing in observing is to really look – a mere glance at an object or a field is simply not enough. You must keep your eye at the oculars for at least a full minute at a time.

That said, don’t let the numbers and reports by others discourage you – the Pleiades are yours to enjoy no matter how many you count.  Another noted popular astronomy author, Terrence Dickinson, writes in his book “Nightwatch,” that he has “a tough time seeing more than six stars with the unaided eye, even under excellent conditions,” but he also notes that some of his “astronomy students have reported seeing as many as 11.”

And turn binoculars on them and you should be able to easily count between 25 and 50.

The second challenge is more subtle. It involves the nebulosity that shows up in nearly every photograph of this cluster. No, don’t go looking for such a photograph. It will only prejudice you as to both the nebulosity and the fainter stars – and besides, you’ll never match a long exposure photograph with your eyes because film, or the modern CCD accumulate  much more light than our eyes.

The Pleiades, as I mentioned, are “young” stars – about 100 million years old, and in astronomical terms that means they’re mere babes. (Our star – the Sun – is about 5 billion years old. ) The Pleiades are not far removed from the cosmic womb of gas and dust in which they were formed. Until fairly recently it was assumed that this nebulosity we see was the last wispy remains of the nebulae in which the Pleiades were formed. Today it is more generally thought that this nebulosity is just a happy accident – an entirely different gossamer cloud of gas and dust that is reflecting the brilliant light of the Pleiades as they pass through it.

In any event, Tennyson seems to reference it when he refers to his “swarm of fireflies” being in a “tangled braid.“  When I look with the naked eye I certainly don’t see it. But be careful. A couple of these stars are quite bright, and because they’re close together, their light tends to blend and perhaps give the impression of being surrounded by nebulosity. Perhaps that’s all Tennyson saw, especially as the stars were near the horizon – or at least that’s where he puts them in his poem.

So while I assume Tennyson was talking about a naked eye view and perhaps glimpsed the nebulosity in pristine Victorian skies free of modern light pollution, I feel this second challenge is best pursued with binoculars and small telescopes.  While there is nebulosity near several stars, the brightest part is southeast of Merope. (Merope is identified in the downloadable charts at the end of this section.)  So I would look for this first.  What you need to do is look for a difference in the darkness of the background sky in this region. Using binoculars move away from the cluster a tad to avoid the glare – see how dark the sky is? Now move closer to it – do you detect any change in the background brightness?  Again, be careful you don’t confuse the glow around a bright star with nebulosity.

When you think you have spotted the nebulosity, it would be helpful to quickly sketch its location on the provided chart – then compare it with a picture of the Pleiades, such as this one, to see  if your impression of the location and size of the nebulosity matches what the camera reveals.

When to look

To take the challenge you want the Pleiades high in a dark – moonless – sky. In December of 2013  thef first and last weeks will be the best time to see the Pleiades in relatively Moonless skies at a reasonable hour.

This is a good lesson, however, for looking at any faint astronomical object. When we do that we are constantly balancing these different factors of how high the object is above the horizon – the higher the better because the higher it is the less atmosphere you need to look through to see it – and where the Moon is, because it is constantly changing position and brightness, and it tends to wash out the sky anywhere near it.  But as you can see, there’s at least a two-week window when you can take the Pleiades’ challenge – assuming the weather cooperates! And, of course, the Pleiades will still be with us through the winter.

Some helpful charts

Click image for larger version. (This chart is derived from a Starry Nights Pro screen shot. A printer friendly version appears in the links at the end of this post.)

There are three printer-friendly charts listed here, but for starters I suggest you download only the first two. They both show the brightest Pleiads but the second one has no names on it and is meant for you to use – and add to – when taking either challenge. Put it on a clipboard and take it, a pencil, and a soft red light to your observing location. Then when you spot a faint star you can mark its location in relation to the brightest stars. Once you’ve done this, take a look at the third chart which shows the Pleiades as seen through a typical pair of binoculars. This chart will tell you whether fainter stars you identified and noted on your chart are in the sky or just in your imagination 😉

Chart 1 – Download this chart as a starting point for your observations – and to get to know the names of the Pleiads. (Atlas and Pleione are the parents of the seven sisters.)

Chart 2 – Download this chart to use for note-taking while you’re observing.

Chart 3 – Download this chart to check for faint stars you detected to see if you marked them in the right position.

Finally, compare your observation of the nebulosity with a picture of the Pleiades, such as this one.

Look East In January 2013 – King Jupiter, plus a trio of twins; Orion, man of the world; Betelgeuse, giant among giants!

January 2013 brings the usual host of bright and wondrous winter stars – and one star that isn’t, but outshines them all – Jupiter. The “king of the planets” is absolutely dominant in the eastern sky this month, even though it gets a tad dimmer as the month goes on.  As we put some more distance between us and it, it drops from -2.7  at the start to -2.5 at the end of the month –  good luck on even being able to notice the change!  At magnitude 0 Capella is the brightest star we see, though in an hour or two, Sirius at Magnitude -1.5 will be up and come significantly closer to Jupiter’s brightness – but Jupiter will still dominate.

There are four new guidepost stars to meet this month and one new guidepost asterism, Orion. Orion is probably the best known figure in the heavens because it actually looks like a person and can be seen from most locations in the world since it’s centered on the celestial equator. That’s a lot for one month, but fun to think about on a dreary winter day and more fun to observe on a brilliant, winter evening. Here’s the chart for the eastern sky one hour after sunset for mid-northern latitudes. Remember, going out about 45 minutes to an hour  after sunset and looking east, you’ll see only the brightest stars as they come out. This makes it easier to identify and learn our guidepost stars. Our guidepost asterisms may not be as readily seen until a little later as the sky gets darker and more of the fainter stars come out.

lookeast
The eastern sky as seen on a January evening about one hour after sunset. Click image for larger version. Use link below to download a printer-friendly, black and white version of this chart. (Chart is based on a screen shot, modified by me, of Starry Nights Pro software.)

Click here to download a black-on-white (printer-friendly) version of this chart

The January eastern sky – what to remember

 Castor – A trio of twins When you see Castor, think “twins” – a trio of twins. Well, in a sense there are really four pairs!

Castor is one of the Gemini Twins (Castor and Pollux), but in a small telescope we see it really is three stars, Castor A, Castor B, and Castor C - and though we can't see this in our telescopes, each of these stars is really a pair, making six stars in all!
Click image for larger view.

But the fourth pair is just mythological – Castor is one of the “heavenly twins” of the constellation Gemini – the other twin being Pollux. This is nothing but a fanciful relationship, though, based on how the stars appear to us – and appeared to ancient cultures as well. But there is more, much more, to Castor. And, it’s what we don’t see that makes this bright star so fascinating. And seeing withy our mind’s eye – your knowledge of what you are seeing – always enhances your experience under the night sky. So were you to look at Castor in a backyard telescope, you would see it has a twin – another bright star that appears quite close –  the two are known simply as Castor A and B. These two are related, orbiting one another about every 400 years. But there’s more. Each of these two are twins! However, you can’t see this in a telescope because in both cases the pairs of stars are extremely close to one another, orbiting one another in periods of less than 10 days. And as noted, each pair orbits the other pair in about 400 years. But there’s more. Returning to that backyard telescope you may notice a third star, Castor C, quite a distance from the first two and significantly dimmer. This star is also part of the Castor family and it too has a twin that also is so close we can’t detect it without special instruments. In fact, Castor C consists of the closest pair of all, orbiting one another in less than a day! This pair, in turn, orbits the other four stars in the system once every 10,000 years or so. So when you look at Castor, remember that in classic mythology it has a twin, Pollux – and remember that what looks to you like a single bright star is really the combined light from six stars, all held together in one of the most complex star systems we know. (I wrote much more about the Castor system on the double-star blog. That post includes a scale model that puts Castor and company into perspective with the Earth and Sun. You’ll find it here. )

Vital stats (for just the brightest star in the Castor system):

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 1.58, the 23rd brightest star in our sky and the brightest second magnitude star. Absolute magnitude is 0.9. (Yes, we call a star “second magnitude” if it’s magnitude is between 1.5 and 2.5 – so you can see castor just slips into this category.)
  • Distance: 50 light years (not among the 200 nearest stars)
  • Spectral Type: A
  • Position: 07h:34m:36s, +31°:53′:18″
  • Compared to the Sun: Castor radiates 14 times as much energy as our Sun.

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Getting to know Pollux – the bigger, brighter twin

How Bayer saw the Gemini Twins in his 1603 atlas. (Image courtesy of Linda Hall library of Science, Engineering and Technology.)

Pollux should feel a little cheated because it’s the brightest star in the constellation of Gemini and usually the brightest star was given the designation “alpha”  by the early chart maker, Bayer. Not Pollux. It is designated “Beta Geminorum” and follows its slightly dimmer twin brother around the sky. But Pollux has its own way of standing out: It has a slight edge in brilliance in our skyit is a tad closer to us; and it is an orange giant. What’s more, in 2008 it was confirmed to have a planet orbiting it. As an orange giant, it has moved off the “main sequence,” and instead of fusing hydrogen into helium, as our Sun does, it is fusing helium into carbon and oxygen. It will eventually blow off a lot of its substance becoming a planetary nebula. It is currently about eight times the diameter of our Sun – that’s huge, but nowhere near as large as our next star, Betelgeuse. The planet circling Pollux is also large – “Jupiter class” – and was first detected in 1993, but not confirmed until 2008.

Vital stats:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 1.14, the 17th brightest star in our sky. Absolute magnitude is 0.7 .
  • Distance: 34 light years (not among the 200 nearest stars)
  • Spectral Type: K
  • Position: 07h:45m:19s, +28°:01′:35″

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 Orion – A man for all to see

If you’re in the same general latitude as I am in Westport, MA, then you see Orion like this as it rises in the east on a January evening.

Orion – as seen when rising in mid-northern latitudes. (Click for larger image.)

What always sticks with me about Orion is how Robert Frost described him in his wonderful poem, “The Star Splitter.”

‘You know Orion always comes up sideways. Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains, And rising on his hands, he looks in on me . . .

But if I lived in Sydney, Australia, I wouldn’t see it this way. What I would see is a man standing on his head!

Orion, as seen when rising in the east from Sydney, Australia. (Click image for larger version.)

The real point here is that these stars do look like a man, and they can be seen from deep into both the southern and northern hemispheres. What’s more, the three distinctive stars that form Orion’s belt also mark the approximate position of the celestial equator in your sky, a handy thing to know. Of course, if you’re in the southern hemisphere, the celestial equator appears to make an arc across your sky to your north. In the northern hemisphere it appears to make an east-west arc across the sky to the south. But in either case the belt stars of Orion will rise just about due east and set due west. How high they get in your sky is calculated simply by subtracting your latitude from 90. That is, if your latitude is 42 degrees, as mine is, then Orion’s belt will be, at its highest, about 48 degrees above the horizon when it passes due south. From Sydney, Australia, the stars in the belt will cross about 56 degrees above the horizon as they pass due north. And yes, if you live on the equator these stars will cross directly over head. Anyway you look at it, Orion is a man for all latitudes – well, almost. At the north pole you would only see his top half, and at the south pole, only his feet! Return to Menu

Betelgeuse – giant among giants – and Rigel’s pretty large as well!

When you look at the eastern sky early on a January evening, get this picture in your head!

Here’s what our eastern sky would look like on a January evening if Arcturus and Rigel, two genuine giants, were as near to us as our Sun. The Sun, to scale, is also shown. Betelgeuse is NOT show to scale.

Yes, that’s rigel represented inthe illustration, not Betelgeuse. Classified as a red supergiant, Betelgeuse is one of the largest stars you can see – and certainly up there with the biggest of all stars – yet it doesn’t look any bigger in our sky than other stars because all stars, except the Sun, are so far away they appear only as a point source of light to our eyes. Last month we showed what Aldebaran would look like if it were in our sky and the same distance from us as the Sun, and this month we’ve added Rigel to the picture. But we can’t do a similar thing with Betelgeuse – it wouldn’t be in our sky – it’s so large we would be in it if it were located where our Sun is! What’s more, it’s hard to put a number to the size of Betelgeuse, not because it can’t be measured, but because it’s hard to decide exactly what you want to measure when you’re dealing with a ball of gas – especially one like Betelgeuse. Our Sun is a little easier case. While it does not have a surface, it does appear to us to have an edge that’s fairly easy to define – it’s the place where its gases are dense enough to be opaque to our vision. Exactly how we define the size of Betelgeuse is a bit more difficult. I rely on James B. Kaler as my stellar authority. I love his books, and in one, “The Hundred Greatest Stars,” he describes the size of Betelgeuse variably as:

  • 650 times that of the Sun, or 2.8 AU (Astronomical Units – an Astronomical Unit is the distance between the Earth and the Sun – roughly 93 million miles)
  • 800 times the diameter of the Sun, or about 4 AU
  • 1600 times the Sun – about 8 AU when measured by modern observation in ultraviolet light

And on his Web site, after opting for a figure of around 8-9 AU, he writes:

However, the star is surrounded by a huge complex pattern of nested dust and gas shells, the result of aeons of mass loss, that extends nearly 20,000 AU away (Betelgeuse so far having lost over a solar mass). That, an extended atmosphere, and the pulsations make it difficult to locate an actual “surface” to tell just how large the star actually is. Moreover, because of changes in gaseous transparency, the “size” of the star depends on the color of observation.

Betelgeuse has other problems. The pulsations he refers to are a sort of puffing up that occurs from time to time and changes both size and brightness significantly. Betelgeuse is usually thought of as about magnitude 0.55, but it can be as bright as 0.3, or as dim as 1.1. All this huffing and puffing will soon lead to an explosion, and Kaler says it will then be as bright as a crescent moon! But don’t hold your breath. “Soon” in astronomical terms means sometime in the next million years or so! Its distance, too, is uncertain, but 500 light years is a good ballpark figure. Let’s focus on that 8 AU size for a moment. When we build a scale model of our solar system and reduce the Sun to something about the size of a volleyball, the tiny speck of the Earth orbits at around 75 feet away. But at 8 AU Betelgeuse would be more like 600 feet in diameter. So pause for a moment as you look at Betelgeuse on a winter evening. Imagine yourself holding an 8-inch volleyball in one hand – our Sun – while you stand next to a red, raging, unstable monster ball that is 600 feet in diameter!

Vital stats:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 0.3 – 1.1, the 10th brightest star in our sky (sometimes). Shines with the luminosity of about 90,000 Suns.
  • Distance: 570 light years
  • Spectral Type: M
  • Position: 05h:55m:10s, +7°:24′:25″

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Rigel – Blue and brilliant

Here we go again! Like Pollux, it looks like Rigel was short-changed having been designated the “Beta” star of the constellation Orion while dimmer Betelgeuse is the Alpha. Of course, Betelgeuse, being variable, may have been brighter when Johann Bayer made his designations in 1603. Bayer’s “system” is inconsistent, however, to say the least, so there’s no sense getting too worried about this. Like Betelgeuse, Rigel is a supergiant. It’s huge and it’s brilliant too – and since it is more distant (860 light years), it is intrinsically more brilliant than Betelgeuse. Jim Kaler writes: “Only about 10 million years old, Rigel should eventually expand to become a red supergiant very much like Betelgeuse is today, by which time it will be fusing helium into carbon and beyond in preparation for its eventual explosion as a supernova.” Rigel’s radius is 74 times that of the Sun, 0.34 Astronomical Units, nearly as big as the orbit of Mercury. Rigel is a challenging double star for amateurs with moderate-sized telescopes.

Vital stats:

  • Brilliance: Magnitude 0.12, the 7th brightest star in our sky. Shines with the luminosity of about 90,000 Suns.
  • Distance: 860 light years
  • Spectral Type: B
  • Position: 05h:55m:10s, +7°:24′:25″

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Look East in December 2012 – see Jupiter and take the Pleiades challenge!

“Glitter like a swarm of firefliesTangled in a silver braid.”  – No you don’t see the Plides star cluster quite like this with your naked eye, but binoculars and small telescopes give you an awesome view. (Words from Tennyson, photo from NASA.)

The focus for those learning the stars this month is the beautiful star cluster, the Pleiades, and while charming to those with dark skies and good eyesight,  I guarantee you it will look far better in just about any binoculars you point towards it.   But in December 2012 you also have Jupiter dominating the eastern sky in early evenings – it’s by far the brightest “star” there. This is also a great  year for the annual Geminid shower, Mercury puts in its best appearance of the year in the morning sky, and Ceres and Vesta offer a special challenge fror those who would like to use their binoculars to spot a dwarf planet and an asteroid. You can find all the details for these in this month’s  “events” post found here.

Here we’ll focus on the sky spectacular that happens every December when you look east starting about 45 minutes to an hour after sunset. Here’s what you should see.

Click image for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights screen shot.)

Click image for larger version. (Prepared from Starry Nights screen shot.)

Go here to download a printer-friendly version of this chart.

Capella, which we met last month, dominates the northeast and now it’s easy to pick out the familiar kite figure which, lead by Capella, covers the heart of the constellation Auriga. About parallel with Capella, but south of it will be the Pleiades – but don’t expect to see them well until it gets darker. You may pick them up with binoculars an hour after sunset, but to really appreciate them, wait until an hour and a half after sunset.

East of the Pleiades – below it as you look at the eastern sky – is the bright guidepost star, Aldebaran. This month Jupiter is so close it tends to drown out the glory of Aldebaran.  Aldebran  highlights a “V” asterism that marks the head of Taurus the Bull.  You can fit Aldebaran, Jupiter and much of this “V” – which is the Hyades star cluster, into the same low-power binocular field of view. Imagine just for a moment what it would be like if Aldebaran were our Sun. James Kaler points out that it would span 20 degrees in our sky – our Sun spans half a degree! So rising in the east, it would nearly fill the space between the Pleiades and the horizon. Get the following vision of Aldebaran in your head as you gaze to the east on a December evening.

Aldebaran, looking like the “Great Pumpkin” of Peanuts comic fame, would overwhelm us with its orange brilliance and dominate our sky if it were as close to us as our Sun. (Actually, if we were this close to Aldebaran we would be overwhelmed – charred to a crisp!)

Aldebaran is what is classified as a “giant,”  and it is indeed huge when compared to our Sun, but there are many stars much larger. It’s the 14th brightest star in our sky – compare it to Capella and you will notice that Capella is  brighter.  (Again, in 2012 Jupiter will tend to dominate Aldebaran making it seem a bit less than it is when it has this corner of the sky to itself.) Aldebaran is 67 light years away – reasonably close – and in the ecliptic – the path the Sun, Moon, and planets take in our sky. This means it frequently flirts with Mars and at such times it’s fun to compare the color of these two reddish objects. It also gets occulted, from time to time, by our Moon – meaning the Moon passes in front of it. Its surface temperature is a bit lower than our Sun’s, thus the orange tint. It radiates quite a lot of its energy in infrared and is about 425 times as luminous as our Sun.

Vital stats for Aldebaran (al-DEB-ah-ran)

• Brilliance: Magnitude .85; its luminosity is the equal of 425 Suns.
• Distance: 67 light years
• Spectral Types: K5 Giant
• Position: 04:36, +16:32

Aldebaran appears to be the brightest star in another star cluster, the Hyades. (The “V” to the south of it.) In reality, it is not part of that cluster, for it’s much closer to us. The Hyades are about 153 light years from us.)  Its name – Aldebaran – means “follower” – for it appears to follow the Pleiades up the sky.  (Actually, skywatchers sometimes use the terms “precedes” and “follows” to indicate sky direction. A star that “follows” is to the east of the object it is following – and one that precedes, is to the west.)

In classical depictions of the constellations, Aldebaran is the “bull’s eye,” and  the “V” of stars near it is the bull’s head. But that V is, as mentioned ,  another open star cluster, the Hyades.

Taurus, as depicted in Uranometria (Bayer, 1603), showing Aldebran as one of his eyes. (Used with permission from the  Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, & Technolog.)

Hyades and Pleiades

Now what’s fun here is to pause a moment and go back and forth between the Hyades and the Pleiades. Both are open star clusters, and in reality they cover roughly the same area of space – about a dozen light years – but, you will notice immediately that the Hyades appear much larger. There’s a simple reason for that – the Hyades are just 151 light years away, while the Pleiades are more like 400 light years from us.

A careful observer will also notice that the Hyades tend to be yellowish stars, while the Pleiades are icy, blue diamonds. That’s because the Hyades at 660 million years are about ten times as old as the Pleiades. Of course, in astronomical terms both contain young stars, our Sun being about 5 billion years old and our galaxy something like 12 billion years. But the few hundred million years of age the Hyades has over the Pleiades means it does contain more yellow stars.

One more thing you might notice about the Pleiades – they look like a tiny dipper – in fact, I’ve had more than one visitor ask me if this is the “Little Dipper.” I guess you could call it The Littlest Dipper! You also could call it “Subaru”  as the Japanese do.  That’s their name  for  this little purse of celestial gemstones,  and the car maker does include them in its logo. And here are a couple of Pleiades challenges for you:

1. How many Pleiads can you see with the naked eye?

2. And can you see – with naked eye, binoculars, or telescope – the faint nebulosity that surrounds these stars?

It was that nebulosity that apparently inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson as he penned this famous tribute in “Lockesley Hall”:

Many a night I saw the Pleiades,
Rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fireflies
Tangled in a silver braid.

Beautiful, but no words or image can do justice to the live, real-time experience of standing outside on a crisp December evening, raising binoculars to your eyes, and seeing these icy diamonds! (Oh they can be seen with the naked eye, but binoculars give a much better view.)

Even without binoculars, the Pleiades can be quite dazzling for those with good eyes and dark skies. Not me. With my aging eyes they tend to blend together, and even when I put my glasses on I can only with care see four or five separate stars. Younger eyes do much better.

So how many stars do you see? Take your time. Patience is the key. I suggest you get a comfortable beach chair, lean back, relax, and look for at least a solid minute at a time.  How many should you see? I suspect most people who take the time to observe carefully get as many as six to 10.  Walter Scott Houston, who wrote a Sky and Telescope magazine column when astronomy was new to me in the 1950s, counted 18 with the naked eye! And the visual observer I most  admire today, Stephen James O’Meara, says in his book “The Messier Objects:”

Although largely symbolic, the age-old association of the Pleiades with the number seven remains fixed to this day – to the point that some observers swear they cannot see more than seven members, even though the Pleiades contains 10 stars brighter than 6th magnitude. Some observers question how it is possible to see 10 Pleiads in The Seven Sisters (a demonstration of the power of words . . . ) The fact is that almost three times that magic number of stars can be seen without magnification by an astute observer under dark skies.

O’Meara says he logged 17 while observing in Cambridge, MA – which hardly has dark skies.  “The trick,” he says, “is to spend a lot of time looking and plotting.” This business of “time on target” is something I find hard to convey to new observers. But it is the key. Another key is simply experience. I frequently see things that those with younger eyes don’t see, simply because I’ve seen them before and know exactly what to expect. Crossen and Tirion in their book “Binocular Astronomy” have this general piece of advice, which certainly applies here:

When I first began observing with binoculars I could not see the Rosette Nebula at all, but now it is not difficult for me even under poor sky conditions.
The most important thing in observing is to really look – a mere glance at an object or a field is simply not enough. You must keep your eye at the oculars for at least a full minute at a time.

That said, don’t let the numbers and reports by others discourage you – the Pleiades are yours to enjoy no matter how many you count.  Another noted popular astronomy author, Terrence Dickinson, writes in his book “Nightwatch,” that he has “a tough time seeing more than six stars with the unaided eye, even under excellent conditions,” but he also notes that some of his “astronomy students have reported seeing as many as 11.”

And turn binoculars on them and you should be able to easily count between 25 and 50.

The second challenge is more subtle. It involves the nebulosity that shows up in nearly every photograph of this cluster. No, don’t go looking for such a photograph. It will only prejudice you as to both the nebulosity and the fainter stars – and besides, you’ll never match a long exposure photograph with your eyes because film, or the modern CCD accumulate  much more light than our eyes.

The Pleiades, as I mentioned, are “young” stars – roughly 100 million years old, and in astronomical terms that means they’re mere babes. (Our star – the Sun – is about 5 billion years old. ) The Pleiades are not far removed from the cosmic womb of gas and dust in which they were formed. Until fairly recently it was assumed that this nebulosity we see was the last wispy remains of the nebulae in which the Pleiades were formed. Today it is more generally thought that this nebulosity is just a happy accident – an entirely different gossamer cloud of gas and dust that is reflecting the brilliant light of the Pleiades as they pass through it.

In any event, Tennyson seems to reference it when he refers to his “swarm of fireflies” being in a “tangled braid.“  When I look with the naked eye I certainly don’t see it. But be careful. A couple of these stars are quite bright, and because they’re close together, their light tends to blend and perhaps give the impression of being surrounded by nebulosity. Perhaps that’s all Tennyson saw, especially as the stars were near the horizon – or at least that’s where he puts them in his poem.

So while I assume Tennyson was talking about a naked eye view and perhaps glimpsed the nebulosity in pristine Victorian skies free of modern light pollution, I feel this second challenge is best pursued with binoculars and small telescopes.  While there is nebulosity near several stars, the brightest part is southeast of Merope. (Merope is identified in the downloadable charts at the end of this section.)  So I would look for this first.  What you need to do is look for a difference in the darkness of the background sky in this region. Using binoculars move away from the cluster a tad to avoid the glare – see how dark the sky is? Now move closer to it – do you detect any change in the background brightness?  Again, be careful you don’t confuse the glow around a bright star with nebulosity.

When you think you have spotted the nebulosity, it would be helpful to quickly sketch its location on the provided chart – then compare it with a picture of the Pleiades, such as this one, to see  if your impression of the location and size of the nebulosity matches what the camera reveals.

When to look

To take the challenge you want the Pleiades high in a dark – moonless – sky. In December of 2012  the Pleiades can be seen in moonless skies in the early evening for the first couple weeks.  The last couple weeks of the month you’ll probably find yourself hindered by varying amount of moon light.

This is a good lesson, however, for looking at any faint astronomical object. When we do that we are constantly balancing these different factors of how high the object is above the horizon – the higher the better because the higher it is the less atmosphere you need to look through to see it – and where the Moon is, because it is constantly changing position and brightness, and it tends to wash out the sky anywhere near it.  But as you can see, there’s at least a two-week window when you can take the Pleiades’ challenge – assuming the weather cooperates! And, of course, the Pleiades will still be with us through the winter.

Some helpful charts

Click image for larger version. (This chart is derived from a Starry Nights Pro screen shot. A printer friendly version appears in the links at the end of this post.)

There are three printer-friendly charts listed here, but for starters I suggest you download only the first two. They both show the brightest Pleiads but the second one has no names on it and is meant for you to use – and add to – when taking either challenge. Put it on a clipboard and take it, a pencil, and a soft red light to your observing location. Then when you spot a faint star you can mark its location in relation to the brightest stars. Once you’ve done this, take a look at the third chart which shows the Pleiades as seen through a typical pair of binoculars. This chart will tell you whether fainter stars you identified and noted on your chart are in the sky or just in your imagination 😉

Chart 1 – Download this chart as a starting point for your observations – and to get to know the names of the Pleiads. (Atlas and Pleione are the parents of the seven sisters.)

Chart 2 – Download this chart to use for note-taking while you’re observing.

Chart 3 – Download this chart to check for faint stars you detected to see if you marked them in the right position.

Finally, compare your observation of the nebulosity with a picture of the Pleiades, such as this one.

Look East in December 2011 – see Jupiter and take the Pleiades challenge!

 “Glitter like a swarm of firefliesTangled in a silver braid.”  – No you don’t see the Plides star cluster quite like this with your naked eye, but binoculars and small telescopes give you an awesome view. (Words from Tennyson, photo from NASA.)

The focus for those learning the stars this month is the beautiful star cluster, the Pleiades, and while charming to those with dark skies and good eyesight,  I guarantee you it will look far better in just about any binoculars you point towards it.   But in December 2011 you also have Jupiter dominating the eastern sky in early evenings – it’s the brightest “star” there – and for many parts of the world you have a total lunar eclipse on December 10. For all practical purposes the coast of Eastern North America misses this eclipse entirely – but if you live elsewhere, check out the details here – it will be especially good for those in the Pacific.

We’ll deal with the planets and lunar eclipse in more detail in a separate “events” post.   Here we’ll focus on the sky spectacular that happens every December when you look east starting about 45 minutes to an hour after sunset. Here’s what you should see.

Click image for much larger view - prepared from Starry Nights Pro screen shot.

Go here to download a printer-friendly version of this chart.

Capella, which we met last month, dominates the northeast and now it’s easy to pick out the familiar kite figure which, lead by Capella, covers the heart of the constellation Auriga. About parallel with Capella, but south of it will be the Pleiades – but don’t expect to see them well until it gets darker. You may pick them up with binoculars an hour after sunset, but to really appreciate them, wait an hour and a half after sunset.

East of the Pleiades – below it as you look at the eastern sky – is the bright guidepost star, Aldebaran. It highlights a “V” asterism that marks the head of Taurus the Bull. Dominant as it is, imagine just for a moment what it would be like if Aldebaran were our Sun. James Kaler points out that it would span 20 degrees in our sky – our Sun spans half a degree! So rising in the east, it would nearly fill the space between the Pleiades and the horizon. Get the following vision of Aldebaran in your head as you gaze to the east on a December evening.

Aldebaran, looking like the “Great Pumpkin” of Peanuts comic fame, would overwhelm us with its orange brilliance and dominate our sky if it were as close to us as our Sun. (Actually, if we were this close to Aldebaran we would be overwhelmed – charred to a crisp!)

Aldebaran is what is classified as a “giant,”  and it is indeed huge when compared to our Sun, but there are many stars much larger. It’s the 14th brightest star in our sky – compare it to Capella and you will notice that Capella is  brighter.  Aldebaran is 67 light years away – reasonably close – and in the ecliptic – the path the Sun, Moon, and planets take in our sky. This means it frequently flirts with Mars and at such times it’s fun to compare the color of these two reddish objects. It also gets occulted, from time to time, by our Moon – meaning the Moon passes in front of it. Its surface temperature is a bit lower than our Sun’s, thus the orange tint. It radiates quite a lot of its energy in infrared and is about 425 times as luminous as our Sun.

Vital stats for Aldebaran (al-DEB-ah-ran)

• Brilliance: Magnitude .85; its luminosity is the equal of 425 Suns.
• Distance: 67 light years
• Spectral Types: K5
• Position: 04:36, +16:32

Aldebaran appears to be the brightest star in another star cluster, the Hyades. In reality, it is not part of that cluster, for it’s much closer to us.  Its name – Aldebaran – means “follower” – for it appears to follow the Pleiades up the sky.  (Actually, skywatchers sometimes use the terms “precedes” and “follows” to indicate sky direction. A star that “follows” is to the east of the object it is following – and one that precedes, is to the west.)

In classical depictions of the constellations, Aldebaran is the “bull’s eye,” and  the “V” of stars near it is the bull’s head. But that V is, as mentioned ,  another open star cluster, the Hyades.

Taurus, as depicted in Uranometria (Bayer, 1603), showing Aldebran as one of his eyes. (Used with permission from the  Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, & Technolog.)

Hyades and Pleiades

Now what’s fun here is to pause a moment and go back and forth between the Hyades and the Pleiades. Both are open star clusters, and in reality they cover roughly the same area of space – about a dozen light years – but, you will notice immediately that the Hyades appear much larger. There’s a simple reason for that – the Hyades are just 151 light years away, while the Pleiades are more like 400 light years from us.

A careful observer will also notice that the Hyades tend to be yellowish stars, while the Pleiades are icy, blue diamonds. That’s because the Hyades at 660 million years are about ten times as old as the Pleiades. Of course, in astronomical terms both contain young stars, our Sun being about 5 billion years old and our galaxy something like 12 billion years. But the few hundred million years of age the Hyades has over the Pleiades means it does contain more yellow stars.

One more thing you might notice about the Pleiades – they look like a tiny dipper – in fact, I’ve had more than one visitor ask me if this is the “Little Dipper.” I guess you could call it The Littlest Dipper! You also could call it “Subaru.”   That’s the Japanese name  for  this little purse of celestial gemstones,  and the car maker does include them in its logo. And here are a couple of Pleiades challenges for you:

1. How many Pleiads can you see with the naked eye?

2. And can you see – with naked eye, binoculars, or telescope – the faint nebulosity that surrounds these stars?

It was that nebulosity that apparently inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson as he penned this famous tribute in “Lockesley Hall”:

Many a night I saw the Pleiades,
Rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fireflies
Tangled in a silver braid.

Beautiful, but no words or image can do justice to the live, real-time experience of standing outside on a crisp December evening, raising binoculars to your eyes, and seeing these icy diamonds! (Oh they can be seen with the naked eye, but binoculars give a much better view.)

Even without binoculars, the Pleiades can be quite dazzling for those with good eyes and dark skies. Not me. With my aging eyes they tend to blend together, and even when I put my glasses on I can only with care see four or five separate stars. Younger eyes do much better.

So how many stars do you see? Take your time. Patience is the key. I suggest you get a comfortable beach chair, lean back, relax, and look for at least a solid minute at a time.  How many should you see? I suspect most people who take the time to observe carefully get as many as six to 10.  Walter Scott Houston, who wrote a Sky and Telescope magazine column when astronomy was new to me in the 1950s, counted 18 with the naked eye! And the visual observer I most  admire today, Stephen James O’Meara, says in his book “The Messier Objects:”

Although largely symbolic, the age-old association of the Pleiades with the number seven remains fixed to this day – to the point that some observers swear they cannot see more than seven members, even though the Pleiades contains 10 stars brighter than 6th magnitude. Some observers question how it is possible to see 10 Pleiads in The Seven Sisters (a demonstration of the power of words . . . ) The fact is that almost three times that magic number of stars can be seen without magnification by an astute observer under dark skies.

O’Meara says he logged 17 while observing in Cambridge, MA – which hardly has dark skies.  “The trick,” he says, “is to spend a lot of time looking and plotting.” This business of “time on target” is something I find hard to convey to new observers. But it is the key. Another key is simply experience. I frequently see things that those with younger eyes don’t see, simply because I’ve seen them before and know exactly what to expect. Crossen and Tirion in their book “Binocular Astronomy” have this general piece of advice, which certainly applies here:

When I first began observing with binoculars I could not see the Rosette Nebula at all, but now it is not difficult for me even under poor sky conditions.
The most important thing in observing is to really look – a mere glance at an object or a field is simply not enough. You must keep your eye at the oculars for at least a full minute at a time.

That said, don’t let the numbers and reports by others discourage you – the Pleiades are yours to enjoy no matter how many you count.  Another noted popular astronomy author, Terrence Dickinson, writes in his book “Nightwatch,” that he has “a tough time seeing more than six stars with the unaided eye, even under excellent conditions,” but he also notes that some of his “astronomy students have reported seeing as many as 11.”

And turn binoculars on them and you should be able to easily count between 25 and 50.

The second challenge is more subtle. It involves the nebulosity that shows up in nearly every photograph of this cluster. No, don’t go looking for such a photograph. It will only prejudice you as to both the nebulosity and the fainter stars – and besides, you’ll never match a long exposure photograph with your eyes because film, or the modern CCD accumulate  much more light than our eyes.

The Pleiades, as I mentioned, are “young” stars – about 100 million years old, and in astronomical terms that means they’re mere babes. (Our star – the Sun – is about 5 billion years old. ) The Pleiades are not far removed from the cosmic womb of gas and dust in which they were formed. Until fairly recently it was assumed that this nebulosity we see was the last wispy remains of the nebulae in which the Pleiades were formed. Today it is more generally thought that this nebulosity is just a happy accident – an entirely different gossamer cloud of gas and dust that is reflecting the brilliant light of the Pleiades as they pass through it.

In any event, Tennyson seems to reference it when he refers to his “swarm of fireflies” being in a “tangled braid.“  When I look with the naked eye I certainly don’t see it. But be careful. A couple of these stars are quite bright, and because they’re close together, their light tends to blend and perhaps give the impression of being surrounded by nebulosity. Perhaps that’s all Tennyson saw, especially as the stars were near the horizon – or at least that’s where he puts them in his poem.

So while I assume Tennyson was talking about a naked eye view and perhaps glimpsed the nebulosity in pristine Victorian skies free of modern light pollution, I feel this second challenge is best pursued with binoculars and small telescopes.  While there is nebulosity near several stars, the brightest part is southeast of Merope. (Merope is identified in the downloadable charts at the end of this section.)  So I would look for this first.  What you need to do is look for a difference in the darkness of the background sky in this region. Using binoculars move away from the cluster a tad to avoid the glare – see how dark the sky is? Now move closer to it – do you detect any change in the background brightness?  Again, be careful you don’t confuse the glow around a bright star with nebulosity.

When you think you have spotted the nebulosity, it would be helpful to quickly sketch its location on the provided chart – then compare it with a picture of the Pleiades, such as this one, to see  if your impression of the location and size of the nebulosity matches what the camera reveals.

When to look

To take the challenge you want the Pleiades high in a dark – moonless – sky. In December of 2011  you’ll have to wait until about December 13 to see the Pleiades in Moonless skies at a reasonable hour.  Each night it will get better – that is, the Pleiades will be higher by the time the Moon rises and so will be seen more clearly. By the 18th the Moon isn’t rising until after midnight.  By Christmas the Moon is back in the sunset sky, but won’t offer much competition for the Pleiades until near the end of the year.

This is a good lesson, however, for looking at any faint astronomical object. When we do that we are constantly balancing these different factors of how high the object is above the horizon – the higher the better because the higher it is the less atmosphere you need to look through to see it – and where the Moon is, because it is constantly changing position and brightness, and it tends to wash out the sky anywhere near it.  But as you can see, there’s at least a two-week window when you can take the Pleiades’ challenge – assuming the weather cooperates! And, of course, the Pleiades will still be with us through the winter.

Some helpful charts

Click image for larger version. (This chart is derived from a Starry Nights Pro screen shot. A printer friendly version appears in the links at the end of this post.)

There are three printer-friendly charts listed here, but for starters I suggest you download only the first two. They both show the brightest Pleiads but the second one has no names on it and is meant for you to use – and add to – when taking either challenge. Put it on a clipboard and take it, a pencil, and a soft red light to your observing location. Then when you spot a faint star you can mark its location in relation to the brightest stars. Once you’ve done this, take a look at the third chart which shows the Pleiades as seen through a typical pair of binoculars. This chart will tell you whether fainter stars you identified and noted on your chart are in the sky or just in your imagination 😉

Chart 1 – Download this chart as a starting point for your observations – and to get to know the names of the Pleiads. (Atlas and Pleione are the parents of the seven sisters.)

Chart 2 – Download this chart to use for note-taking while you’re observing.

Chart 3 – Download this chart to check for faint stars you detected to see if you marked them in the right position.

Finally, compare your observation of the nebulosity with a picture of the Pleiades, such as this one.

Coloring the stars – an exercise for all seasons

Trying to identify the true colors of stars, as we see them, is fun, challenging, and instructive.

Your assignment, should you choose to accept it, is to develop accurate color swatches that represent the colors of the bright stars, including our Sun, as they actually are seen and in so doing learn:

  • How to see color in the stars
  • What the color tells us about each star

The chart shows the Winter Hexagon because many of the brightest stars can be seen there all at one time, but it also includes swatches for several bright stars that are prominent in the spring, summer, and fall.

This image of the Winter Hexagon was taken by Jimmy Westlake looking at the skies over Stagecoach, Colorado. Look carefully and you can see color in some of the stars - especially if you click on the image to see the larger version. (Copyright © 2007-2011 JRWjr Astrophotography. All rights reserved.)

Star colors are real. They relate to a star’s temperature and from them we can surmise much more about a star. But they also are very subtle. I think of them not as colors, but as tints. I see stars essentially as white lights to which a little color has been added to tint it one way or another. I believe most people don’t see the colors at all when they first look at the stars and this can be frustrating, especially if you’ve read that Betelgeuse, for example, is an “orange” star.

With the naked eye you only will see color on the brightest stars because our eye simply needs a lot of light to detect color. In fact, point your binoculars at those bright stars, and you should find it easier to detect the colors because the binoculars gather more light. You can train yourself to see star colors, though people do differ in this ability. But for most, the colors are really quite obvious on some of the brighter stars, once you know what you can expect to see. And that’s what this little exercise is for – learning what you can expect to see.

Your main tools will be the chart and the color table provided here. You’ll have to provide the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue), plus white in some easily blendable medium, such as common water, tempera, or poster paints. Nothing fancy needed and no special painting skills required.

First, here’s the chart you will be coloring.

You can download a version for printing by clicking here.

And here’s the color table you will use as your guide

Your task is simple.

Next to each star on the star chart is its spectral classification. This consists of a letter and number. The letters go from blue to red stars in this order: OBAFGKM. Each letter gets divided into a numerical sub-classification from 0-9. So a “B0” star would be just at the beginning of the “B” category. A “B9” star would be at the end of that category and almost into the next one. The star chart shows the spectral classification for each star. Match that with what you see in the color table. Then determine its color.

You will notice that there are two different color scales in the table. That’s because the way we see color depends in part upon the environment in which we see it. The “conventional color” is what would be seen if the star were put under high magnification and projected onto a white sheet of paper in the daylight. The “apparent color” is what is seen by the naked eye in a dark sky. That is the color you want. That’s what you’ll try to duplicate by mixing your water colors and painting the swatch next to each star so it matches its classification – and thus what you are likely to see in the night sky.

The result will be a chart that will help you know what color to expect to see when you look at the stars in the sky. I should add that if you see a photograph of these stars, the colors will be similar, but different. That’s because the colors in a photograph depend on the color sensitivity of the film or computer chip used to record them – which is not the same as your eye. So you cannot use a photograph as an absolute guide to what you will see. The chart you make, if done well, will be a much better guide.

When you look for star color, make sure the star is high in your sky – hopefully at least 30 degrees or more above the horizon. All bright stars near the horizon will appear to flash many brilliant colors. Those colors – like the colors in our sunrises and sunsets – are caused by the Earth’s atmosphere. When you are looking at an object near the horizon, you are looking through much more air than when you are looking at a star high overhead.

Of course, you are going to have to use your judgment in making the color swatches, and you might experiment a bit on another piece of paper. That’s why I recommend using some sort of water color for this activity – so it’s easy to blend and thin your colors to get the color you want – the one that is closest to what you actually see. Of course to get orange you mix the yellow and red – and white will come in handy to lighten any of the colors.

Get the idea? Will your colors be perfect? I doubt it. But experimenting this way will give you a much better feel for how subtle star colors are and exactly what you are looking for when you go out at night. Too often people are confused and disappointed because they read that Betelgeuse or Aldebaran is a red or orange star – and when they read that, they are thinking of the conventional red or orange – quite naturally – but look at the chart and look at the difference between conventional colors and apparent colors.

More about a star’s spectral class

OBAFGKM is certainly a crazy order, I know. It started out to be an alphabetical list more than a century ago. But as they learned more about the stars, the letters got scrambled. Here’s an easy way to remember the order:

Oh Be A Fine Girl/Guy Kiss Me

At first they thought letters would be enough, but the more they learned about stars, the more they saw there were many subtle variations that were important. So for each letter there is a sub-classification system that goes from 0-9. Thus an O9.5 star, such as Mintaka, is in the “O” spectral class (blue) but about as close as one can get to being a “B” (blue white) star. Don’t be too concerned about these numbers, however. You’ll find it difficult enough just to get colors that accurately match the letter classifications. Besides, I’ve found that different sources sometimes give different numbers for the spectral classification of a specific star, so I see them as a good rough guide as to how solidly a star is into a specific class but not something to take overly seriously in terms of what we can detect with our eyes.

Mintaka, incidentally, is included here because bright “O” stars are hard to find. Mintaka was one of the easiest “O” star to identify, being the western-most star in Orion’s Belt. But coincidentally, Ainitak, the star at the other end of the belt, is also an”O” and  a bit brighter. But ay O9.7 it, too, just makes it into the “O” class by the skin of its teeth. In fact, it’s a bit closer to being a “B” star than Mintaka – but I guarantee you won’t see any difference.

“M” stars are even more difficult to find. True, Betelgeuse is one in the Winter Hexagon, and  in the summer we have another brilliant “M” star – Antares, the brightest star in the Scorpion.  But these are special. They both are Supergiants – stars that are going through their death throes and have expanded tremendously.  The vast majority of “M” stars are of average size, and in fact, these average-sized “M” stars are the most common stars in the universe – yet there is not a single “normal” class “M” star visible to our naked eye, let alone as bright as the stars that form the Winter Hexagon.

I also added our Sun to the chart. DO NOT LOOK AT THE SUN TO TRY TO DETERMINE COLOR. YOU WILL DAMAGE YOUR EYES. We were all taught as children to color our Sun yellow – and this is correct if you are talking about conventional color. But the Sun is a class G2 star, and I suggest you color its swatch the “apparent” color it would appear to our naked eye were we seeing it as just another bright star in our night sky. This means it would appear the same as Capella.

Binocular and telescope users can see many double stars, and some of these provide striking color contrast, such as the blue and gold of Albireo. Seeing two stars close together that are of different colors makes it even easier to see star colors but also presents a whole new set of challenges, and experienced observers frequently differ on what the colors of the double stars are. John Nanson has explored this in an excellent post to the “Star Splitters” blog that we co-author. To learn more about these stars and the special challenges of determining their colors, read John’s post here.

What we can surmise from the colors

As you can see from the temperature scale, blue stars are hot – red stars are “cool.” Cool, that is, as far as star temperatures go. They are still very, very hot: 3700 Kelvin is about 6,200 degrees Fahrenheit! (Steel melts at about half that temperature.)

So once you notice a star’s color, what more can it tell you about the star? A detailed answer is beyond this exercise, but it means you can make a very good guess about some other important characteristics of the star.

Here’s a summary in table form of what the spectral classification tells about the size and life expectancy of a star, and even hints at how it will probably die.

  • Ninety-five percent of all stars are on what is called the “main sequence.” Most of the stars that are not on the main sequence are white dwarfs. But a few others are giants or supergiants. Roughly one percent of the stars fall into one of the giant categories, such as Antares.
  • The lower limit for the mass of a star is 1/80th the mass of our Sun – or about 13 times the mass of Jupiter.
  • Temperatures are for a star’s surface. The interior is much hotter.
  • Age – “O” stars have short lives and thus die first, then “B,” etc. No “dwarf” “K” or “M” star has died yet – the universe isn’t old enough.

Look East in December 2010: Seven sisters and so much more !

Click image for much larger view. (Modified from Starry Nights Pro screenshot.)

The focus for those learning the stars this month is the beautiful star cluster, the Pleiades – known in many cultures as the “Seven Sisters.” But in December 2010 there’s also a great lunar eclipse; the Geminids should put on a terrific meteor show; and the planets promise several “cool” appearances.

For details on the eclipse, Geminids, and planet show, be sure to see the December 2010 Events post. Here we’ll focus on the sky spectacular that happens every December when you look east starting about 45 minutes after sunset. Here’s what you should see.

Go here to download a printer-friendly version of this chart.

Capella, which we met last month, dominates the northeast and now it’s easy to pick out the familiar kite figure which, lead by Capella, covers the heart of the constellation Auriga. About parallel with Capella, but south of it will be the Pleiades – but don’t expect to see them well until it gets darker. You may pick them up with binoculars an hour after sunset, but to really appreciate them, wait an hour and a half after sunset.

East of the Pleiades – below it as you look at the eastern sky – is the bright guidepost star, Aldebaran. It highlights a “V” asterism that marks the head of Taurus the Bull. Dominant as it is, imagine just for a moment what it would like if Aldebaran were our Sun. James Kaler points out that it would span 20 degrees in our sky – our Sun spans half a degree! So rising in the east, it would nearly fill the space between the Pleiades and the horizon. Get the following vision of Aldebaran in your head as you gaze to the east on a December evening.

Aldebaran, looking like the "Great Pumpkin" of Peanuts comic fame, would overwhelm us with its orange brilliance and dominate our sky. (Actually, if we were this close to Aldebaran we would be overwhelmed - charred to a crisp!)

Aldebaran is what is classified as a “giant,”  and it is indeed huge when compared to our Sun, but there are many stars much larger. It’s the 14th brightest star in our sky – compare it to Capella and you will notice that Capella is  brighter.  Aldebaran is 67 light years away – reasonably close – and in the ecliptic – the path the Sun, Moon, and planets take in our sky. This means it frequently flirts with Mars and it’s fun to compare the color of these two reddish objects. It also gets occulted, from time to time, by our Moon – meaning the Moon passes in front of it. Its surface temperature is a bit lower than our Sun’s, thus the orange tint. It radiates quite a lot of its energy in infrared and is about 425 times as luminous as our Sun.

Vital stats for Aldebaran (al-DEB-ah-ran)

• Brilliance: Magnitude .85; its luminosity is the equal of 425 Suns.
• Distance: 67 light years
• Spectral Types: K5
• Position: 04:36, +16:32

Aldebaran appears to be the brightest star in another star cluster, the Hyades. In reality, it is not part of that cluster, for it’s much closer to us.  Its name – Aldebaran – means “follower” – for it appears to follow the Pleiades up the sky.  (Actually, skywatchers sometimes use the terms “precedes” and “follows” to indicate sky direction. A star that “follows” is to the east of the object it is following – and one that precedes, is to the west.)

In classical depictions of the constellations, Aldebaran is the “bull’s eye,” and  the “V” of stars near it is the bull’s head. But that V is, as mentioned ,  another open star cluster, the Hyades.

Taurus, as depicted in Uranometria (Bayer, 1603), showing Aldebran as one of his eyes. (Used with permission from the  Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering, & Technolog.)

Hyades and Pleiades

Now what’s fun here is to pause a moment and go back and forth between the Hyades and the Pleiades. Both are open star clusters, and in reality they cover roughly the same area of space – about a dozen light years – but, you will notice immediately that the Hyades appear much larger. There’s a simple reason for that – the Hyades are just 151 light years away, while the Pleiades are more like 400 light years from us.

A careful observer will also notice that the Hyades tend to be yellowish stars, while the Pleiades are icy, blue diamonds. That’s because the Hyades at 660 million years are about ten times as old as the Pleiades. Of course, in astronomical terms both contain young stars, our Sun being about 5 billion years old and our galaxy something like 12 billion years. But the older Hyades does contain more yellow stars.

One more thing you might notice about the Pleiades – they look like a tiny dipper – in fact, I’ve had more than one visitor ask me if this is the “Little Dipper.” I guess you could call it The Littlest Dipper! You also could call it “Subaru.”   That’s the Japanese name  for  this little purse of celestial gemstones,  and the car maker does include them in its logo. And here are a couple of Pleiades challenges for you:

1. How many Pleiads can you see with the naked eye?

2. And can you see – with naked eye, binoculars, or telescope – the faint nebulosity that surrounds these stars?

It was that nebulosity that apparently inspired Alfred Lord Tennyson as he penned this famous tribute in “Lockesley Hall”:

Many a night I saw the Pleiades,
Rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fireflies
Tangled in a silver braid.

Beautiful, but no words or image can do justice to the live, real-time experience of standing outside on a crisp December evening, raising binoculars to your eyes, and seeing these icy diamonds! (Oh they can be seen with the naked eye, but binoculars give a much better view.)

Even without binoculars, the Pleiades can be quite dazzling for those with good eyes and dark skies. Not me. With my aging eyes they tend to blend together, and even when I put my glasses on I can only with care see four or five separate stars. Younger eyes do much better.

So how many stars do you see? Take your time. Patience is the key. I suggest you get a comfortable beach chair, lean back, relax, and look for at least a solid minute at a time.  How many should you see? I suspect most people who take the time to observe carefully get as many as six to 10.  Walter Scott Houston, who wrote a Sky and Telescope magazine column when astronomy was new to me in the 1950s, counted 18 with the naked eye! And the visual observer I most  admire today, Stephen James O’Meara, says in his book “The Messier Objects:”

Although largely symbolic, the age-old association of the Pleiades with the number seven remains fixed to this day – to the point that some observers swear they cannot see more than seven members, even though the Pleiades contains 10 stars brighter than 6th magnitude. Some observers question how it is possible to see 10 Pleiads in The Seven Sisters (a demonstration of the power of words . . . ) The fact is that almost three times that magic number of stars can be seen without magnification by an astute observer under dark skies.

O’Meara says he logged 17 while observing in Cambridge, MA – which hardly has dark skies.  “The trick,” he says, “is to spend a lot of time looking and plotting.” This business of “time on target” is something I find hard to convey to new observers. But it is the key. Another key is simply experience. I frequently see things that those with younger eyes don’t see, simply because I’ve seen them before and know exactly what to expect. Crossen and Tirion in their book “Binocular Astronomy” have this general piece of advice, which certainly applies here:

When I first began observing with binoculars I could not see the Rosette Nebula at all, but now it is not difficult for me even under poor sky conditions.
The most important thing in observing is to really look – a mere glance at an object or a field is simply not enough. You must keep your eye at the oculars for at least a full minute at a time.

That said, don’t let the numbers and reports by others discourage you – the Pleiades are yours to enjoy no matter how many you count.  Another noted popular astronomy author, Terrence Dickinson, writes in his book “Nightwatch,” that he has “a tough time seeing more than six stars with the unaided eye, even under excellent conditions,” but he also notes that some of his “astronomy students have reported seeing as many as 11.”

And turn binoculars on them and you should be able to easily count between 25 and 50.

The second challenge is more subtle. It involves the nebulosity that shows up in nearly every photograph of this cluster. No, don’t go looking for such a photograph. It will only prejudice you as to both the nebulosity and the fainter stars – and besides, you’ll never match a long exposure photograph with your eyes because film, or the modern CCD accumulate  much more light than our eyes.

The Pleiades, as I mentioned, are “young” stars – about 100 million years old, and in astronomical terms that means they’re mere babes. (Our star – the Sun – is about 5 billion years old. ) The Pleiades are not far removed from the cosmic womb of gas and dust in which they were formed. Until fairly recently it was assumed that this nebulosity we see was the last wispy remains of the nebulae in which the Pleiades were formed. Today it is more generally thought that this nebulosity is just a happy accident – an entirely different gossamer cloud of gas and dust that is reflecting the brilliant light of the Pleiades as they pass through it.

In any event, Tennyson seems to reference it when he refers to his “swarm of fireflies” being in a “tangled braid.“  When I look with the naked eye I certainly don’t see it. But be careful. A couple of these stars are quite bright, and because they’re close together, their light tends to blend and perhaps give the impression of being surrounded by nebulosity. Perhaps that’s all Tennyson saw, especially as the stars were near the horizon – or at least that’s where he puts them in his poem.

So while I assume Tennyson was talking about a naked eye view and perhaps glimpsed the nebulosity in pristine Victorian skies free of modern light pollution, I feel this second challenge is best pursued with binoculars and small telescopes.  While there is nebulosity near several stars, the brightest part is southeast of Merope. (Merope is identified in the downloadable charts at the end of this section.)  So I would look for this first.  What you need to do is look for a difference in the darkness of the background sky in this region. Using binoculars move away from the cluster a tad to avoid the glare – see how dark the sky is? Now move closer to it – do you detect any change in the background brightness?  Again, be careful you don’t confuse the glow around a bright star with nebulosity.

When you think you have spotted the nebulosity, it would be helpful to quickly sketch its location on the provided chart – then compare it with a picture of the Pleiades, such as this one, to see  if your impression of the location and size of the nebulosity matches what the camera reveals.

When to look

To take the challenge you want the Pleiades high in a dark – moonless – sky. In December of 2010 both the first and last weeks give good, Moonless skies at a reasonable hour. At the start of the month the Moon is in the early morning sky. It’s new on December 5 and won’t start to be a problem until around the 10th. By Christmas the Moon isn’t rising until five hours after sunset, and it rises later each night through the end of the month. The Pleiades will be well up about two and a half hours after sunset.

This is a good lesson, however, for looking at any faint astronomical object. When we do that we are constantly balancing these different factors of how high the object is above the horizon – the higher the better because the higher it is the less atmosphere you need to look through to see it – and where the Moon is, because it is constantly changing position and brightness, and it tends to wash out the sky anywhere near it.  But as you can see, there’s at least a two-week window when you can take the Pleiades’ challenge – assuming the weather cooperates! And, of course, the Pleiades will still be with us through the winter.

Some helpful charts

Click image for larger version. (This chart is derived from a Starry Nights Pro screen shot. A printer friendly version appears in the links at the end of this post.)

There are three printer-friendly charts listed here, but for starters I suggest you download only the first two. They both show the brightest Pleiads but the second one has no names on it and is meant for you to use – and add to – when taking either challenge. Put it on a clipboard and take it, a pencil, and a soft red light to your observing location. Then when you spot something you can mark its location in relation to the brightest stars. Once you’ve done this, take a look at the third chart which shows the Pleiades as seen through a typical pair of binoculars. This chart will tell you whether fainter stars you identified and noted on your chart are in the sky or just in your imagination 😉

Chart 1 – Download this chart as a starting point for your observations – and to get to know the names of the Pleiads. (Atlas and Pleione are the parents of the seven sisters.)

Chart 2 – Download this chart to use for note-taking while you’re observing.

Chart 3 – Download this chart to check for faint stars you detected to see if you marked them in the right position.

Finally, compare your observation of the nebulosity with a picture of the Pleiades, such as this one.

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