Stargazers better hurry up and get outside before the end of the month if they want to see the best view of the Pleiades star cluster – also known as the “Seven Sisters” or “M45”. Because the cluster of seven stars is so well placed in the night sky, November is often called the “month of the Pleiades” because it can be seen from dusk until dawn. The cluster of stars can be seen from pretty much anywhere on the planet from the North Pole all the way down to the southern tip of South America.
According to astronomers, it is believed that the Pleiades stars were created from the same gas and dust cloud around 100 million years ago and are approximately 430 light-years away from us. This cluster contains several hundred stars – some of which are hundreds of times brighter than our own sun – and moves through space at a speed of around 25 miles per second.
If you’re wondering where to look in the night sky, it’s actually pretty easy to find. First thing you do is look for Orion’s Belt which is the three stars in a row in the Orion constellation. Once you find Orion’s Belt, you imagine putting a line through them and keep going until you get to a pattern of V-shaped stars (this is the Face of Taurus the Bull). Just past those, you’ll see one really bright star and that’s called Aldebaran. A little bit past the bright Aldebaran star, you’ll find the Pleiades star cluster.
Since the majority of people see six stars instead of seven, there is a story about the lost Pleiad. In fact, according to astronomer Robert Burnham Jr., the myth of the lost Pleiad is a well-known legend among Europeans, Asians, Africans, Native Americans, Indonesians, and Aboriginal Australians. The seventh-brightest star in the cluster, called Pleione, varies in brightness so that may explain the supposedly missing seventh star.
Some people see more than seven stars in the Pleiades cluster. Agnes Clerke, who was a writer and an astronomer in the 1800s, said that Michael Maestlin (who was the mentor of Johannes Kepler) claimed to have counted eleven stars in the cluster. This was, of course, before the invention of the telescope, so unless he had exceptional eyesight, nobody really knows how many stars he actually saw. However, since it’s now the year 2018, we have the ability to see more stars in the cluster with a telescope or strong binoculars. For those who don’t own a telescope, it’s possible to see additional stars by letting your eyes adjust to the darkness for at least 30 minutes.
Throughout the years, the Pleiades star cluster has worked as a type of calendar for several different civilizations. In the old Mediterranean world, on the day when the cluster of stars was first seen in the sky before sunrise, it indicated that it was the beginning of the navigation season.
According to the Druids, when the cluster of stars reached the highest point in the night sky (at midnight), it was the time that the veil separating the living from the dead was at its weakest.
The Zuni people of New Mexico call the Pleiades stars the “Seed Stars” and when the cluster isn’t seen anymore in the evening sky each spring, it indicates the beginning of their seed-planting season.