Volume 14, Issue 9 ~ March 2 - March 8, 2006

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Sky Watch

by J. Alex Knoll

Celestial Tears

Tracking the Pleiades and Hyades

The thin waxing moon appears low in the west around twilight at week’s end, but by Monday’s first-quarter moon, it is high overhead at sunset and remains visible until well after midnight.

Sunday evening the moon travels the ecliptic in the company of ruddy Mars and the constellation Taurus. Sunset reveals them almost directly overhead, less than five degrees apart. Another bright red light, Aldebaran, the eye of the bull, shines less than 10 degrees south of Mars.

To either side of Moon and Mars are the daughters of Atlas, the Pleiades sisters and the Hyades sisters. Easiest to discern is the V-shaped cluster of the Hyades beside glaring Aldebaran and below Mars.

These were the daughters of Atlas and Aethra, entrusted by Zeus with his infant son Bacchus. Some accounts have them placed in the heavens as a reward for this service; others tell of the tears they shed at the death of their brother, Hyas. The deluge was so fierce the gods were forced to place the sisters in the skies where they would rain upon the world only seasonally.

To the west of Sunday’s moon, on the shoulder of the bull, are the Pleiades sisters, the daughters of Atlas and Pleione. Clustered in a tight knot less than one degree from one another, the Pleiades are far dimmer than their half-sisters, to the point that only six of the seven remain visible to the unaided eye. Brightest among the sisters is Alcyone, a third-magnitude star and the only green star visible to the unaided eye in the northern hemisphere. One legend tells of the sisters’ group suicide in mourning for their father’s never-ending punishment of holding the earth upon his shoulders.

Both the Pleiades and the Hyades have long been associated with rain and storms, often violent. However, a season without rain during the sisters’ appearance brings drought and famine.

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