While hosting a star party recently, I was asked by a lady why all the stars appeared white when she had read about two orange colored stars, Aldebaran and Betelgeuse.
It’s not that all stars are white it’s just that at night the human eye does not have the visual acuity to discern the true colorations of many of the stars and because of that lack of acuity, all the stars appear white.
The star, Aldebaran, is actually and orange-red first magnitude star that dominates the constellation of Taurus, the Bull and at this time of year, Taurus lies in the mid-high southeastern sky. The distinctive coloration of Aldebaran is best seen using binoculars or a telescope.
As Aldebaran crosses our local meridian on Jan. 1, the vivid color cannot be mistaken as well as that other star, Betelgeuse which, if you’re facing south, will be not that far to the right.
Aldebaran is also referred to as Alpha Tauri but nicknamed “the follower” because if follows the cluster of stars known as the Pleiades, also in Taurus.
Aldebaran lies at a distance of 60 light years and marks the eye of the mythological bull that is also well-known in the realm of astrology and the Zodiac clan.
Departing from this column’s star coloration theme, I thought I’d write about a beautiful cluster of stars lying within Taurus.
Although I have to drive 35 miles east to enjoy really dark skies, the one thing I never get tired of is observing the Pleiades through my telescope. For those of us who live in the city a trip to the countryside can be a real eye-opener.
The Pleiades is the most famous cluster of stars in the sky and their “home” is in the constellation of Taurus, the Bull. Taurus and the Pleiades are now visible, as I said, in the mid-high eastern sky.
I should also mention that the Pleiades are only one of few stellar formations mentioned in the Bible. In the book of Job, Chapter 38, verse 31: “Canst, thou bind the sweet influence of the Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?”
Looking at the cluster with binoculars, you should see three stars in a fan shape with four brighter stars just to the lower left.
The first star in the fan is Asterope followed by Taygeta and then Celaeno. The four stars to the lower left are Maia, upper right, Electra, lower right, Merope, lower left and finally Alcyone, upper left.
Each of these last four stars appear brighter than the other “sisters” because they are completely surrounded by vast clouds of hydrogen which is illuminated by the electromagnetic radiation from the stars embedded in the cloud.
In mythology, the Pleiades represent the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione. Things got a little out-of-hand because of the boisterous giant named Orion who was courting the girls and they became so frightened they begged the god Zeus to protect them. Having sympathy for the young ladies Zeus turned the sisters into doves and placed them in the sky.
On another subject, an unobstructed low southwestern evening sky tonight will host a thin crescent moon passing very close just below our very bright evening “star’ Venus.
If you have a pair of binoculars (and the sun is well below the horizon) take a peak at the pair. The moon will be bathed in earthshine while Venus will be very bright but show no noticeable planetary detail because of the thick clouds that surround it.