On Fridays we post practical homeschooling notes on natural history and astronomy, and today we’re going to make the acquaintance of the Seven Sisters of the night sky, the Pleiades.
Last Tuesday was the night of the new moon, when the sky is naturally darkest, so this weekend will still be a good time for stargazing, with only a little interference from a slim lunar crescent. If the sky is clear tonight or tomorrow, go out with your students and find the Pleiades, and make them friends for life.
The Pleiades are a beautiful, compact group of blue-white stars within the constellation Taurus, readily visible to the naked eye and spectacular through binoculars. At this time of year they are well above the horizon at sunset and are high overhead for most of the evening. The six or seven brightest stars that form the group are arranged into a tiny dipper (not to be confused with the Big Dipper in the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear). Your recommended star atlas (riverhouses.org/books) has a planisphere on the front that lets you dial up the night sky for any day and hour of the year, and the description of the constellation Taurus on pages 16–17 will provide additional details.
The Pleiades are a true star cluster, close to one another in space—they aren’t simply an accidental grouping along our line of sight as most constellations are. They are also quite near to us, at least as stellar distances go: current estimates put them about 400 light years away, meaning the light you see from them tonight left those stars around the year 1600.
Because the Pleiades cluster is so conspicuous, it has been recognized and named by most northern hemisphere cultures thoughout history and has played a prominent role in literature and mythology. For the ancient Greeks, the Pleiades were seven sisters, the daughters of Atlas, one of the Titans, and the sea-nymph Pleione, placed in the heavens by Zeus to protect them from the depredations of mortal life.
On your next homeschool visit to the library, spend a few minutes researching the Pleiades astronomically and mythologically. But first, take your students out after dark this week and let them see—that’s the beginning of learning. Once they’ve seen, the Pleiades will be their friends for life, and years from now, whether at home or even in a distant land, they can look up and remember, along with Tennyson in his 1842 poem “Locksley Hall”:
Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.