Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Pleiades: anatomy of a star cluster

The Pleiades also known as the Seven Sisters and Messier 45, are an open star cluster containing middle-aged, hot B-type stars in the north-west of the constellation Taurus. It is among the star clusters nearest to Earth, it is the nearest Messier object to Earth, and is the cluster most obvious to the naked eye in the night sky. It's distance to Earth is approximately 444.2 light years.

It is is visible from virtually every part of the globe. It can be seen from as far north as the North Pole, and farther south than the southernmost tip of South America. It looks like a tiny misty dipper of stars.

Galileo Galilei was the first astronomer to view the Pleiades through a telescope. He thereby discovered that the cluster contains many stars too dim to be seen with the naked eye. He published his observations, including a sketch of the Pleiades showing 36 stars, in his treatise Sidereus Nuncius in March 1610.

The name of the Pleiades comes from Ancient Greek. In mythology the name was used for the Pleiades, seven divine sisters, the name supposedly deriving from that of their mother Pleione and effectively meaning "daughters of Pleione". In reality, the name of the star cluster almost certainly came first, and Pleione was invented to explain it.

The nine brightest stars of the Pleiades are named for the Seven Sisters of Greek mythology: Sterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygeta, Celaeno, and Alcyone, along with their parents Atlas and Pleione. As daughters of Atlas, the Hyades were sisters of the Pleiades.

With larger amateur telescopes, the nebulosity around some of the stars can be easily seen.  It is a reflection nebula, caused by dust reflecting the blue light of the hot, young stars.

It was formerly thought that the dust was left over from the formation of the cluster, but at the age of about 100 million years generally accepted for the cluster, almost all the dust originally present would have been dispersed by radiation pressure. Instead, it seems that the cluster is simply passing through a particularly dusty region of the interstellar medium.

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