M45, the Pleiades and their reflection nebulae
AAO image reference UKS 18.    « Previous || Next »

M45, the Pleiades
Top left is NE. Image width is about 100 arc min.     Roll mouse over picture to see star names
Image and text © 1984-2010, Australian Astronomical Observatory
Photograph from UK Schmidt plates by David Malin.

The Pleiades are one of the finest and nearest examples of a reflection nebula associated with a cluster of young stars. The cluster itself is a group of many hundreds of stars about 400 light years away in the direction of the northern constellation of Taurus. A handful of the brightest stars cluster together in space and have been recognised as a group since ancient times. However, even the brightest of the Pleiades stars (Alcyone, apparent visual mag +2.9) is relatively faint and would be inconspicuous (and nameless) if it were not a member of the cluster The faintest named star is Asterope, (V = +5.8), close to the threshold of naked eye visibility. All the visible stars of the Pleiades are in reality much more luminous than the Sun.

The nebulosity seen here is light reflected from the particles in a cloud of cold gas and dust into which the cluster has drifted. It appears blue because these tiny motes of interstellar dust scatter blue light more efficiently than the longer wavelengths of red light, and it is streaky because of the distribution of dust particles in space. Some care has been taken to ensure that the colours seen here are realistic.

In western literature and legend the stars bear the names of the Seven Sisters, the daughters of Atlas and Pleone. They were also half-sisters to the goddesses of the of the nearby Hyades stars. Most other peoples who have turned their eyes to the sky have stories about them. The delicate beauty of the stars has them identified as a group of women in many cultures, from Australian Aborigine to Native American. To the Japanese they are 'Subaru', a conglomerate or collection (i.e. cluster), while some Chinese legends refer to a swarm of bees. Maori and some Pacific Islands people call the Pleiades 'Matariki', the star cluster that heralds the start of the Aotearoa Pacific New Year.

More information on the Pleiades can be found on Steve Gibson's excellent web pages dealing with both the science and the mythology of this beautiful cluster of faint stars. Roll your mouse over image above to see the star names (Merope, Asterope, Maia, Electra, Taygeta, Alcyone, Celaena).

Related images
UKS 18a. The Pleiades, wide field view
Constellation of Taurus (external site)

For details of object position and photographic exposure, search technical table by UKS reference number.

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Updated by David Malin, 2010, July 25