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Touring the Skies By: Jim Bonser (jbonser@usa.net)

March 7, 2014
Northern-Sun Print
Ps. 19:1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. One of my favorite deep sky objects is an open cluster known as the Pleiades or M45. Deep Sky objects are objects in space that are outside our solar system, objects like nebulae which are huge clouds of gas and dust, galaxies which are sometimes called ‘island universes’ which contain hundreds of millions to a trillion stars, and star clusters which are groups of dozens to as many as a million stars. One of the reasons M45 is one of my favorite clusters is that it can be seen easily without any optical aid. In fact, M45 is one of the first deep sky objects I saw in the sky and then identified by myself by comparing what I saw to some simple star charts. That was a long time ago, but I remember how excited I was to be able to be able to correctly figure out what I had seen. As I said, M45 is an example of an open cluster. Open clusters typically have several dozen up to several thousand stars. In the case of M45, the current count is in the neighborhood of 400 to 500 stars. Most people can see the 6 brightest stars in the cluster and if you get away from city lights on a clear night, many are able to see as many as nine of the cluster’s beautiful members. The famous astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571 – 1630) wrote that he had reports of people who were able to see 14 stars in the famous cluster. How many can you see? I would like to encourage you to get out and see! Finding the Pleiades is really easy in March. First of all, the temperatures are finally starting to warm a little making it possible to be outside at night for more than 10 minutes without fear of being frost bitten. Still, be sure you dress for the cold so you can enjoy the challenge. Go out after dark, say around 8 o’clock and face west where you have a fairly clear view without a lot of tall trees. You should be able to spot a small patch of stars almost due west about 45 degrees up from the horizon. That would be half way from the horizon to the point straight overhead (the zenith). A little to the left, toward the south, you will see the three bright stars in a row that make the belt of the well know constellation: Orion, the hunter. Another name for M45 is “The Seven Sisters”. In mythology, the sisters were playing in an open glade when Orion happened to see them while he was out hunting. He chased the girls with less than chivalrous motives and the girls started to run away, but Orion was quickly gaining on them. Zeus seeing all this from Olympus, had pity on the terrified girls and changed them into a flock of doves which flew away, out of the reach of Orion. Zeus then placed the doves in the sky. Orion was also placed in the sky, forever chasing the sisters, while he himself was also being chased by his enemy, Scorpios, the scorpion. So, back to observing the Pleiades. Many people see the shape of a tiny dipper and some have mistakenly thought that the seven sisters ARE the Little Dipper. The Little Dipper is actually much larger though and is in the northern sky. The Pleiades are in the constellation Taurus, which lies in the path of the ecliptic. The ecliptic is an imaginary line that traces the part of the sky where all the planets may be found. The Moon also travels near the ecliptic, and occasionally passes between the Earth and the cluster, briefly covering or occulting it. Unfortunately the geometry is not right to do that this month, but on the evening of March 6th and then early next month on April 2nd and 3rd, the Moon will be very close and may help you locate them if you are having trouble. The Moon will be slightly lower and to the left of M45 both times and bright enough to wash out most of the other stars in the area, but the 6 main stars will still be visible, even with the Moon so close. I hope you will get out and enjoy the drama in the skies this month and be sure to carefully count and see how many stars in this famous cluster you can see. Briefly, Jupiter is still hanging out in Gemini and is very bright. Saturn rises around 10:45 at mid-month in the constellation Libra and will be fun to watch this summer. Mars is not far away in Virgo and getting much brighter at magnitude -1. Clear Skies!

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