About two weeks ago (mid October, 2005) I acquired a beautiful new scope (a Televue Genesis APO refractor), and Wednesday we finally had a clear night to give it a test run! I’m sure the forty days and forty nights of rain in the bible must have occurred after Noah got a new telescope. At any rate, rather then pointing it at the obvious target (Mars - I’ll probably try to image that next) I aimed the scope about 20 degrees north of Mars at the tiny dipper shape grouping of 7 to 9 visible stars (and hundreds more visible through a telescope) called the Pleiades. Since the whole thing was too large to image at once, I specifically pointed the scope at the star known to the ancient Greeks as Merope. (The nine visible stars are named Merope, Alcyone, Electra, Meia, Asterope, Taygeta and Celaeno after the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione in greek mythology, which are also the names of the other two visible stars. The non-naked eye stars get much less sexy names like HIP17664.) I intentionally overexposed the brighter stars to show the blue-white starlight reflecting of clouds of interstellar dust that seem to be drifting through the grouping.
To astronomers, the Pleiades is an object known as an “open cluster,” which is formed when a huge cloud of interstellar gas condenses into stars, which then gradually wander apart (if the mutual gravitational attraction of the stars were much greater, it would instead form a clump called a “globular cluster”). As I mentioned, the nebulosity in the picture is believed to be due to a passing cloud of interstellar dust and not the gas cloud the stars formed out of.
Its interesting to note that the Pleiades is mentioned twice in the old testament - the Japanese called it “Subaru,” and an impression of the 7 brightest stars forms the car company’s logo. Some ancient cultures held a holiday to commemorate the dead on the date when the Pleiades reaches its highest point at midnight (Halloween). And the Aztecs believed the world would end the day the Pleiades is directly overhead at midnight (shouldn’t happen for a while, according to my software).