By David Ward
One of my favorite celestial objects is making an appearance this time of year. Early in the evening look to the east for a tiny cluster of stars about the size of the full moon. It almost looks like a small dipper, and in fact many people mistake it for the Little Dipper.
Actually it is the Pleiades star cluster, the famous Seven Sisters from Ancient Greece.
This little group of stars has enchanted people throughout the ages. The ancient Hawaiians believed their ancestors came from these stars. Authors from Alfred Lord Tennyson to J.K. Rowling have mentioned the Pleiades in their writings. Do you drive a car with stars on the grill and the steering wheel? Believe it or not, Subaru is the Japanese name for the Pleiades.
The Greeks associated these stars with the seven beautiful daughters of Atlas, a Titan, and Pleione, a sea nymph. The great hunter Orion fell madly in love with them and chased them all over ancient Greece. The sisters, however, spurned his amorous advances and pleaded to Zeus, king of the gods, for help. He turned them first into pigeons and then into stars in the sky.
Most people can only see six stars in the little cluster and the ancient Greeks had a legend about that. They said that Merope, one of the sisters, hid her face in shame because she had a love affair with a mere mortal man.
The stars of the Pleiades look dim to us, but that is because they are very far away, much more distant than most of the other stars we see. They are very young, hot and luminous stars, some of them shining at a whopping 1,000 times brighter than our sun. If they were as close to us as Vega or Arcturus or Altair, they would be the brightest thing in the night sky, second only to the moon.
Astronomers estimate the age of the Pleiades at a mere 100 million years and predict that it will hold together as a cluster for only another 250 million years. The huge gravitational forces of the Milky Way galaxy, through which all the stars move, will eventually tear them apart from one another. Our own sun was born in a cluster of stars like the Pleiades 5 billion years ago, but it has been separated from its siblings and now travels through the galaxy on its own.
If you are out there in the evening gazing at the Seven Sisters, be sure to take a look at brilliant Venus low in the southwest just after sunset. She will only be with us for December and in early January will dive into the sunset glow to reappear as the morning star later. On Dec. 5 and 6 a small crescent moon will be hanging above the goddess of love. Shortly after Venus sets, another very bright planet rises in the east – Jupiter, the Roman name for the king of the gods. He will grace our skies with his brilliance all winter and spring.
I have seen Comet ISON from Death Valley National Park in southern California, one of the clearest and darkest places in the country. At this point I would call it the flop of the century rather than the comet of the century as predicted a year ago.
Do not give up on it yet, however. After its wild and fiery ride around the sun on Thanksgiving Day, it might emerge, as a Phoenix from the ashes, as something truly amazing. It may be worth it to get up just before sunrise in early December and look low in the east for something spectacular.
If you are out there before dawn, Jupiter will be that very bright object directly above, Mars will be shining bright red high in the east and Saturn low in the east in the sunrise glow.
Comet ISON will be visible all December and even in the early evening sky later in the month, so you will not have to get up so early to see it. How bright it will be then is anybody’s guess. There are a lot of amazing things to see up there besides comets, so be sure to take a look up on a clear night.