Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Anna B. Comstock

Aldebaran and the Pleiades

Teacher's Story

Almost in a line with the belt of Orion, up in the skies northwest from it, is the rosy star Aldebaran. This ruddy star, which is not so red as Betelgeuse, marks the end of the lower arm of a V-shaped constellation composed of this and four other stars. This constellation is the Hyades (hi'a-dez).  The Hyades is a part of the constellation called by the ancients Taurus, the bull, and is the head of the infuriated animal. Aldebaran is a comparatively near neighbor of ours, since it takes light only thirty-two years to pass from it to us. It gives off about forty-five times as much light as does our sun; it lies in the path traversed by the moon as it crosses the sky, and is often thus hidden from our view.

Although we are attracted by many bright stars in the winter sky, yet there is a little misty group of stars, which has ever held the human attention enthralled, and of which the poets of all the ages have sung. These stars are called the Pleiades (ple'ya-dees);  most eyes can count only six stars in the constellation. There are nine stars large enough to be seen through the telescope, and which have been given names; but sky photography has revealed to us that there are more than three thousand stars in this little group. Perhaps no stars in the heavens give us such a feeling of the infinity of the universe as do the Pleiades; for astronomers believe that they form a great star system which is now being evolved from a nebula. The reason for this belief is that these stars seem to be surrounded by a brilliant mist which sometimes seems to be looped from one to another; and, too, the stars are all in the same stage of development and have the same chemical composition, and they are all moving together in the same direction. These stars which look so close together to us are so far apart really that our own sun and all its planets could roll in between them and never be noticed. It would require several years for light to travel from one of these stars in the Pleiades to another. The Pleiades are so far from us that we cannot estimate the distance, but we know that it takes light several hundred years to reach us from them. There is a mythical story found in literature, that once the unaided eye could see seven instead of six stars in the Pleiades, and much poetic imagining has been developed to account for the "lost Pleiad."


The Pleiades, a group of six small stars surrounded by a misty light.


Aldebaran and the Pleiades

Leading thought—The Pleiades seem to be a little misty group of six stars, but instead there are in it three thousand stars. Half way between the Pleiades and Orion's belt is Aldebaran, an aging ruddy star.

Method—Draw the diagram (p. 895) on the blackboard showing Orion, Aldebaran and the Pleiades, and the lines B, C, D. Give an outline of the observations to be made by the pupils, and let them work out the answers when they have opportunity. Each pupil should prepare a chart of these constellations.


1. Imagine a line drawn from Rigel to Betelgeuse and then another line just as long extending to the west of the latter at a little less than a right angle, and it will end in a bright, rosy star, not so red as Betelgeuse.

2. What is the name of this star? Write it on your chart.

3. Can you see the figure V formed by Aldebaran and four fainter stars? Sketch the V and show where in it Aldebaran belongs. This V-shaped constellation is called the Hyades.

4. Imagine a line drawn from Orion's belt to Aldebaran and extend it to not quite an equal length beyond it, and it will end near a "fuzzy little bunch" of stars which are called the Pleiades. Place the Pleiades on your chart.

5. How many stars can you see in the Pleiades?

6. Why are they called the seven sisters?

7. How many stars in the Pleiades which are named, and how many does photography show that there really are in the group?

8. How far apart from each other are the nearest neighbors of the Pleiades?

9. What do the astronomers think about the Pleiades and why do they think this?