With the Sun-Moon conjunction tomorrow (Saturday, April 18), moon-free skies in the next few days provide a perfect opportunity to spot Venus in the west next to the beautiful star cluster Pleiades and Aldebaran, the brightest star in the constellation of Taurus.
Our constellations were created millennia ago by Earth-bound observers who grouped together stars that appear as if they were close to each other but in reality, out there in cosmos, are not. The stars of the Pleiades, on the other hand, are all related to each other, having been formed out of the same molecular cloud.
Situated prominently along the sky's ecliptic, the Pleiades are high enough in the sky to be visible most of the year and their distinctive grouping makes them immediately recognizable. As such, this star cluster has been featured prominently not only in myths but has signaled the start of essential cultural activities. For instance, ancient Mediterranean sailors considered the Pleiades rising in early June as the start of the season for safe navigation. The native American Blackfoot tribe told an origin story of the Pleiades that featured the themes of orphaned boys, drought, buffalo, and dogs – every day elements in the lives of these Plains hunters. The tale served to remind future generations that the yearly buffalo hunt, so necessary to the tribe's survival, began when the Pleiades set in the west.
Even our popular culture, most times too distanced from the beauty of the night sky, holds an visual echo of this celestial neighbor. How many of you have waited for a red light to change to green while idling behind a Subaru and noticed their logo?
The Pleiades as a formation holds over 1000 members, but only a few are visible to the naked eye. The Greeks named nine of them, but the common name for the formation, the Seven Sisters, suggest that this is the number most star-gazers can expect to see. Even the name of Taurus's brightest star, Aldebaran, points to the preeminence of the Pleiades. Translated from Arabic, the name means "The Follower," since this orange giant star perpetually follows the Pleiades across the heavens.
Radiant Venus with the Pleiades in a recent post on the Astronomy Picture of the Day. Image by Babak Tafreshi
Although Venus has passed its closest conjunction with the Pleiades, she still serves as a helpful signpost in locating both the open star cluster and Aldebaran in the next few days. If you're keen to get a glimpse of elusive Mercury at the end of the month, locating the two most recognizable elements of Taurus will pay dividends. The planet closest to the Sun isn't easy to spot, but in two weeks, it will be hanging out low in the west right next to the Pleiades. On April 20th, the waxing crescent moon will give you a good glimpse of them too, as it will be closest to the star cluster that night. The next evening, April 21st, the moon will have just passed Aldebaran and will be sitting very companionably next to Venus. Some very lovely sights to see.
Stargazers who arise before the Sun the next morning, Tuesday, April 22nd, will have the best chance to spot the Lyriad meteor shower. All this weekend and into next week, you could be fortunate to spot one or two of these, especially since there's no chance bright moonlight reducing their visibility. Conventional wisdom says the best hours for meteor shower viewing begin after midnight, but they could streak across the sky at any time and from any location in the celestial sphere. Make an wish and see if it comes to fruition as the growing season begins.