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Sky watch: View the timeless Pleiades in January

One of the wonderful features of the nighttime sky is its timelessness. Want to see the stars as viewed by the ancient Greek philosophers? Simply step outdoors and look up.

On January evenings, some of the most brilliant of these stars and star groupings shine in the eastern sky after dark. There's Orion, the great hunter near the horizon; Taurus, the bull, above him; and the shimmering star cluster, the Seven Sisters, riding on the bull's back.

The Seven Sisters are named because on a clear night, sky watchers with good vision can often see seven stars within it, but astronomers also know it as the Pleiades.

This name is believed to derive from the Greek word meaning "to sail" because when ancient stargazers saw this grouping rise just before the sun, it was a sign of the opening of the navigational season in the Mediterranean world.

In Greek mythology, the stars represented the half-sisters of the Hyades (the V-shaped star grouping below the Pleiades) who were saved by Zeus from Orion's pursuit by transforming them into a group of celestial doves. Aratus gave us their individual names in a poem from the 3rd century B.C.: Alcyone, Merope, Celaeno, Taygeta, Sterope, Electra and Maia.

In English literature, they are mentioned in the Tennyson's "Locksley Hall":

"Many a night from yonder ivied casement,

ere I went to rest,

Did I look on Great Orion, sloping slowly

to the west.

Many a night I saw the Pleiads,

rising thro' the mellow shade,

Glitter like a swarm of fireflies

tangled in a silver braid."

Today, many stargazers live in areas where artificial lights obliterate the faintest stars, and often find it tough to find the Pleiades. But you can almost always spot them by casting your gaze slightly to the side of the cluster; this will make it much more visible than if you stare at it directly.

If you've never seen this magnificent star grouping shimmering in the east after dark, get out on the first week of January to do so. It truly is one of the most beautiful - and timeless - sights in all the heavens.


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