This week, Mars, ‘the Red Planet,’ is making a close passage beneath the Pleiades star cluster. It will be 17 years before Mars and the Pleiades hook up again, so take a moment and check this out while they’re still close together. You can find Mars and the Pleiades just past overhead as darkness falls. They set in the WNW around midnight.
Currently, Mars shines at magnitude 0.9, not nearly as bright as it was at opposition last fall. But, its reddish-yellow color creates a fine contrast with the blue stars of the Pleiades.
About 450 light-years away, the Pleiades (a.k.a., the Seven Sisters) is the closest open star cluster to our solar system. There are 1,000 to 3,000 stars in this dipper-shaped cluster. The stars of the cluster are less than 100 million years old and are considered to be of intermediate age. The brightest stars are hot blue stars, however, most of the Pleiades are faint stars at the red end of the spectrum.
Faint wisps of reflection nebulae, like blue cirrus clouds, seem to surround the brightest stars in the cluster. The nebulae is believed to be unrelated to the cluster, the stars just passing through the dust clouds as they travel together through space. A small telescope or camera-mounted star-tracker is needed to photograph the nebulae
The Pleiades in Mythology
Ancient stories of the Pleiades abound. In Greek mythology, the Pleiades are the seven daughters of the titan Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione.
In one version of the myth, these seven sisters committed suicide when their father, Atlas, was eternally doomed to shouldering the heavens, as punishment for his part in the ‘Battle of the Gods,’ a decade-long war for control of the universe, fought between the titans or old gods and the new Olympian gods (the Olympian gods won).
After Atlas was forever occupied holding up the sky, the hunter Orion pursued each of his daughters. Zeus, the Sky god and head of all gods on Mount Olympus, placed the Seven Sisters in the sky to keep Orion at bay. Zeus then placed Orion in the sky, where the hunter chases in vain the seven daughters of Atlas across the firmament (unbeknownst to the ancient Greeks, the Pleiades star cluster is moving toward Orion!).
According to one Native American tale, seven young Kiowa women were surrounded by bears. Appealing to the Great Spirit, the ground beneath the women’s feet began to rise, freeing them from their predators. The bears clawed at the new cliffs beneath the flat-topped ground where the women safely resided. As the bears gouged the sides of the cliffs, the ground rose higher, pushing the women into the sky as stars. The butte where the women were saved from the bears is now known as Devils Tower, located in northeastern Wyoming.
In India, the stars are known as Krittika, the six mothers of the six-faced war god, Murugan. To the Japanese, the star cluster is known as ‘Subaru,’ which means clustering or unifying.
In the Lascaux Caves in southwestern France, an ancient pictograph portrays the Pleiades as a six-starred dipper cluster in the shoulder of a bull (Taurus). This rock painting is estimated to be 17,000 years old.
Mars and the Pleiades This Week
Mars will be slightly closer to the Pleiades over the next two nights, making its closest approach on Wednesday (March 3). The planet will then move away from the cluster as it heads for neighboring Gemini.
No optical aid is necessary to view Mars and the Pleiades, although binoculars will help. It’s best to view this spectacle shortly after dark, before Mars and the Pleiades descend into the glare of the prison lights and the light dome of Santa Fe and communities just to the north.