The winter sky is home to several bright stars, but one of its most beautiful gems is surely the Pleiades cluster.
This small star cluster, often called the Seven Sisters, is easy to find. First locate the constellation of Orion, which culminates in the south in the evening. Three aligned stars form the tilted belt of Orion the Hunter. Above his belt are two stars that serve as his shoulders (the one on the left is reddish). Below his belt are two stars representing his knees.
Starting from the stars in his belt, draw an imaginary line upward to the right. You’ll first come across another reddish star, Aldebaran, the main star in the constellation of Taurus. Extend your imaginary line about 10 degrees and you’ll locate the Pleiades.
Six stars are easily visible to the naked eye in the Pleiades, though some people can see up to 12. Count the stars to test how keen your eyesight is. This star cluster is the brightest in the sky. It’s shaped much like Ursa Minor, but the constellation is much larger and isn’t found in the same part of the sky. The cluster spans two degrees (four times the Moon’s diameter).
Located 440 light-years from Earth, the Pleiades cluster is quite young, having formed about 100 million years ago (whereas the Sun is almost five billion years old). The stars making up the cluster are mostly young and hot and hence have a blue hue. The cluster contains about 3,000 stars in an area 50 light-years across. It’s estimated that in 250 million years the stars of the Pleiades will have dispersed, bringing an end to the cluster.
Photographs of the Pleiades reveal a blue haze surrounding certain stars; the cluster is presently drifting through an interstellar cloud of gas that is illuminated by the young stars of the Pleiades.
Though visible to the naked eye, the Pleiades cluster reveals its true beauty when seen through binoculars or a small telescope. Take time to admire the cluster’s shape and beautiful blue colour. You’ll understand why the Pleiades are considered a real gem of the starry sky.
Venus and Mars in the evening sky
As for planets, Venus still dominates the sky on winter nights. It shines like a beacon high above the southwest horizon once the sun goes down and the sky begins to darken. Mars is also visible, slightly to the upper left of Venus. Though not nearly as bright as the Evening Star, Mars stands out thanks to its reddish hue.
In early February, the two planets will be only about five degrees apart but will gradually pull away from each other after that. The crescent Moon will form a triangle with Venus and Mars on January 31 and February 28. The triangle on January 31 will be tighter and visible above the west-southwest horizon till 8:30 p.m. The distance between each object will be about five degrees (the width of your hand held at arm’s length). On February 28, the Moon-Venus-Mars triangle will be more spread out (about 12 degrees between the objects) and visible above the western horizon till 8 p.m.
Later at night, the brilliant planet Jupiter will catch your eye. It’ll rise above the east-southeast horizon around 11:30 p.m. in early February (and around 9:30 p.m. by the end of the month). The Moon will be visible just over five degrees to the upper right of Jupiter on the night of February 14 to 15. The next night, the Moon will be to the lower left of the giant planet.
If you’re an early bird, you’ll also get a glimpse of Saturn. Around 4:30 a.m., you can spot the ringed planet rising above the southeast horizon. On the morning of February 20, the crescent Moon will be visible about seven degrees to the upper right of the planet. The next day, the Moon will lie six degrees to the left of Saturn.