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|Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro' the mellow shade,|
|Glitter like a swarm of fireflies tangled in a silver braid.|
|- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1837-8, Locksley Hall|
The Pleiades star cluster, also known as the Seven Sisters and Messier 45, is a conspicuous object in the night sky with a prominent place in ancient mythology. The cluster contains hundreds of stars, of which only a handful are commonly visible to the unaided eye. The stars in the Pleiades are thought to have formed together around 100 million years ago, making them 1/50th the age of our sun, and they lie some 130 parsecs (425 light years) away. From our perspective they appear in the constellation of Taurus, with approximate celestial coordinates of 3 hours 47 minutes right ascension and +24 degrees declination. For northern hemisphere viewers, the cluster is above and to the right of Orion the Hunter as one faces south, and it transits -- reaches its highest point in the sky, midway between rising and setting -- around 4am in September, midnight in November, and 8pm in January.
The image at the top of the page shows the central part of the cluster, where the brightest stars are found. This color photograph was taken in three filters, each exposed for about a half-hour, by David Malin with the UK Schmidt Telescope. The image is roughly 1.5 degrees wide, or three times the angular diameter of the moon. North is up and east is to the left. The cluster distance of 130 parsecs makes the physical width of the picture about 3.4 parsecs (11 light years); the cluster itself has a width perhaps 10 times greater, but most of the bright stars are found within one or two degrees of the core.
The following table lists the bright stars in order from west to east (right to left in the figures above), giving the name, Bayer and Flamsteed designations where applicable. More modern Henry Draper catalog numbers are also given, in addition to apparent visual magnitude, spectral type, and cluster membership status. Additional information on each star is available by selecting the appropriate link (Note: the linked data may not be accessible to all users; if you do not seem to have access, consult this SIMBAD page for more information).
|Name||Bayer / Flamsteed||HD||V mag||Spectral Type||Mem?||More|
|Celæno||16 Tauri||23288||5.46||B7 IV||variable||Yes||data|
|Electra||17 Tauri||23302||3.70||B6 IIIe||emiss. line||Yes||data|
|18 Tauri||23324||5.64||B8 V||Yes||data|
|Taygeta||19 Tauri||23338||4.30||B6 IV||variable||Yes||data|
|Maia||20 Tauri||23408||3.87||B8 III||variable||Yes||data|
|Asterope 1||21 Tauri||23432||5.80||B8 V||variable||Yes||data|
|Asterope 2||22 Tauri||23441||6.43||A0 Vn||Yes||data|
|Merope||23 Tauri||23480||4.18||B6 IVe||emiss. line||Yes||data|
|Alcyone||Eta / 25 Tauri||23630||2.90||B7 III||emiss. line||Yes||data|
|Atlas||27 Tauri||23850||3.62||B8 III||spect. binary||Yes||data|
|Pleione||28 Tauri||23862||5.09||B8 IVevar||irreg. var||Yes||data|
|33 Tauri||24769||6.05||B9.5 IV||ellips. var.||No||data|
As a matter of perspective, the faintest stars listed above are still 40 times brighter than our own sun would appear at a similar distance, and the brightest Pleiad, Alcyone, is 1000 times more luminous! Stars like our sun, of which there are a few in the cluster, appear as faint flecks of light in the AAO photograph at the top of this page, and are well below the sensitivity of the human eye. They are easy to confuse with the numerous stars behind the cluster that also appear in the picture and look very similar. Careful observation and analysis is required to determine which of these fainter stars are cluster members.
A separate membership issue is also worth mentioning. Mythologically speaking, Atlas and Pleione are not Pleiades, but rather the parents of the Seven Sisters. Why do they get two stars named after them? Atlas is already pretty busy holding the heavens up on his shoulders, and myths vary as to whether or not Pleione was placed in the sky with her daughters. So how did the current naming scheme come about? Beats me. If you know, send me email.
Sensitive instruments show the nebula extending several degrees from the cluster center in optical, infrared, and radio emission. Much of it can also be seen in ulraviolet light. I studied the interstellar matter around the Pleiades for my PhD thesis.