Stars over Sisters


Last updated 1/2/2024 at 3:11pm

Photo courtesy Robert Gendler

The iconic Pleiades star cluster lies just 410 light-years away in the constellation of Taurus.

Taurus, the brightest zodiac constellation of the winter season, rides high in the evening sky during January. The celestial Bull is one of only 12 elite constellations that lie along a strip of sky centered about the ecliptic. The sun, moon, and all the major planets are always found somewhere within this belt of the sky.

The arrangement of stars in Taurus does, indeed, resemble the head of a bull. The V-shaped star cluster known as the Hyades depicts the beast's face. From this feature two horns extend in a northeasterly direction. The northern horn terminates at Elnath, the constellation's second brightest star, while Zeta Tauri marks the tip of the southern horn. Aldebaran, a first magnitude reddish-orange star, denotes the Bull's eye. Finally, the celebrated Pleiades star cluster represents Taurus' shoulder.

Aldebaran is the brightest star in the group. It is classified as a red giant star that is 44 times larger than the sun and lies at a distance of only 65 light-years. Interestingly, the NASA space probe Pioneer 10, launched in 1972, will pass by Aldebaran in about two million years.

Lying as close as it does to the Milky Way, Taurus has a long list of deep-sky objects. Two of them are so spectacular that they have no rivals anywhere else in the sky. One of these is M1, first entry in Charles Messier's catalog of non-stellar objects. Dubbed the Crab Nebula, it is the remnant of a supernova that exploded in 1054. Chinese astronomers recorded the event, describing the temporary star as being visible in the daytime for nearly a month. M1 is located 6,500 light-years away.

The other notable object is the famous Pleiades star cluster, sometimes referred to as M45. It is estimated that the cluster contains approximately 3,000 stars, many of them hot, massive blue bodies that will live short lives. The young cluster formed just 100 million years ago.

The Pleiades cluster is an easy naked-eye object. Between 6 to 14 individual stars can be made out, depending on atmospheric transparency, stability, and darkness of night. To many observers the cluster looks like a tiny dipper. It resides about 410 light-years from Earth.

Many cultures have associated this constellation with a bull, including Greek, Egyptian, and Indigenous mythology. Taurus, along with the Pleiades, can even be traced back to an ancient cave painting at Lascaux, dated 15,000 BC. According to Greek sky lore, the god Zeus disguised himself in the figure of a bull to seduce Europa, a princess. Once gaining Europa's attention, Zeus carried her across the sea to the island of Crete, where he removed his disguise. Zeus and Europa ended up having three children together. Zeus honored the Bull by placing him among the stars.

The solar system's three inner planets, Mercury, Venus, and Mars, will be clustered in the morning sky in January. They will be best seen near the eastern horizon later in the month. Jupiter (in Aries) and Saturn (in Aquarius) will be the only naked-eye planets to occupy the evening sky.

As the new year begins, the moon will be on the wane. It will continue to darken until just after the new moon on January 11-an ideal time to do some dark-sky viewing. In the days that follow, the moon's brightness will wax until the Full Wolf Moon arrives on January 25. The title "Wolf Moon" was coined after the thought that more wolves could be heard howling under a January full moon. The full moon will rise just after 6 p.m. and set just before 6 a.m., allowing plenty of time to view the illuminated night sky.

January's Starry Sky tip is to turn lights off when not in use. If you still have holiday twinkle lights up, make sure you shut them off when you go to bed at night, or even set them on a timer. Otherwise, turn off porch and outside lights when you are not actively using them. The collective glow produced by outdoor lights that are left on at night creates a light dome surrounding Sisters, ultimately making it more difficult to see the beautiful stars in our night sky.


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