2015-05-23 Astrophotography: The Pleiades Star Cluster

The Pleiades is one of the most beautiful open star clusters found in the winter sky.  It is easily seen by the naked eye even in light polluted sites and has a distinct “dipper” configuration.  Due to it’s prominence in the night sky it is an excellent and common target for the beginner astrophotographer.  In fact, while these images were not my first attempt at astrophotography, The Pleiades was indeed my very first target.

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Widefield view of Messier 45 (M45) The Pleiades Star Cluster

I captured these images on February 10th of this year on a brutally cold winter evening.  It was close to zero degrees Fahrenheit, but the skies were exceptionally clear.  Despite the ever-present skyfog created by the light pollution of nearby Burlington, Vt, The Pleiades appeared to jump right out of the sky.

Found within the constellation of Taurus, the official designation of The Pleiades Star Cluster is Messier 45, and it’s common name is the Seven Sisters.  It is at an estimated age of less then 100 million years and is located approximately 400 light years from Earth.  While more than 1,000 stars make up this wondrous star cluster, there are nine exceptionally bright stars that make up it’s recognizable formation.  Two of these stars are called Pleione and Atlas, and they are the mythological parents to the seven sisters named Sterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygeta, Celaeno, and Alcyone.  The parents, Pleione and Atlas, make up the handle of this tiny dipper while the sisters all form the spoon itself.

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The Seven Sisters and Their Parents

According to Greek Mythology, Atlas (and his brother) sided with the Titans in their war against the Olympians.  After the defeat of the Titans, Zeus punished Atlas, forcing him to stand at the edge of Earth and hold up the heavens upon his shoulders.  Afterwards, Orion began to pursue the daughters of Atlas, and to comfort him, Zeus first transformed them into doves, and then into stars.  It is said that to this day, Orion still pursues the Seven Sisters across the night sky, chasing them from east to west in a futile attempt to capture them.

A slightly tighter crop isolates The Pleiades Cluster, revealing more clearly the intricate and beautiful webbing of blue reflection nebulae.

Surrounding the spoon are areas of brilliant blue reflection nebula, which are essentially clouds of interstellar space dust illuminated by the stars behind.  They are blue for the same reason that the Earth’s atmosphere appears blue during the daytime, being that the blue wavelength of light is scattered most efficiently here.  Surrounding the star cluster you will notice shades of black and grey.  These are faint wisps of dust in space faintly illuminated, standing out against the darker background of the sky.  Also of note, while there are many hot white stars in this image, there are also several orange stars.  These orange stars are much cooler in temperature than their bright white counterparts.

Most stars appear to be a bright hot white, however a long exposure may reveal stars of different color and intensity. These orange stars are much cooler than their hot white counterparts.

I have always been captivated by this tiny dipper in the sky, and now that I have had the opportunity to photograph it with long exposures, I am mesmerized by the beauty that is unseen by the naked eye.  I cannot wait until next winter for another opportunity at photographing this beauty, and hope that the knowledge and experience that I gain by photographing additional deep space targets between now and then, will help me to do more justice to The Pleiades.

Canon 7D Mark II (Un-modified), Canon 300mm f2.8is II , f2.8, 19 second exposures (60 for a total of 19 minutes exposure), ISO 1600, Sky-Watcher Star Adventurer, ImagesPlus, Photoshop, Lightroom.  60 Light Frames, No Dark, Bias or Flats Taken.

 


 

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