Everyone around the world who can see the Sun or the Moon can see the Pleiades. That is, basically, everyone!
The reason for it is that the star cluster Pleiades is very close to the ecliptic. The ecliptic marks the path of the Sun in the sky and also the plane of our solar system. The Pleiades are just one degree away from the ecliptic. That’s the size of your pinky if you hold it at arm’s length.
In Aotearoa, the name of the Pleiades as they appear in the morning sky in June is Matariki. Here is a video we made on how to see Matariki in the morning sky. For written instructions and more details, see below.
How far away are the Pleiades?
The Pleiades are our galactic neighbours
Not the closest cluster but close enough, at 410 light years away from Earth the Pleiades are our neighbours. To put things in perspective, the closest solar system to the Sun is at 4.25 light years away and Orion’s stars are at about 1,500 light years from us.
The Pleiades are on the Zodiacal Band
Because they are part of the constellation Taurus, the Pleiades are also included in the Zodiacal Band. The Zodiacal Band are the stars located visually behind the paths of the planets and the Sun, and is a band of stars contained within 8 degrees each side of the ecliptic. From Earth, it feels as if the Sun glides on the ecliptic throughout the year. In reality Earth orbits around the Sun so our point of view changes every day (by one degree). Since is impossible to see the stars that are behind the Sun from Earth as it would mean you look straight through the Sun, we must wait until the Earth changes its position in orbit.
They disappear from the night sky for about 2 months at the time
All stars located on the Zodiacal Band are not visible in the night sky about once a year.
When the Sun is between Earth and the Pleiades from Earth it looks as if the Pleiades disappear into the Sun. Around 15th of April, the Pleiades disappear from the sky. Where do they go? Ancient people reckoned to the underworld… In reality, they fall behind the Sun. Once a year every star that is nearby the path of the ecliptic (the path of the Sun in the sky) seems to disappear behind the Sun. But why do people remember only Matariki / The Pleiades / Halloween (another celebration that links the star cluster and the dead) and not every other star that also disappears in this way? Maybe because there is no star cluster like the Pleiades (which in Greek means simply “many”) that is so prominent, beautiful and close to the path of the Sun and Moon.
Our ancestors thousand of years ago did not know about celestial mechanics so they imagined many stories about why the Pleiades disappear into the sun to be then “reborn”.
Towards mid June, the constellation reappears in the morning sky on the eastern horizon.
The reason that makes stars such a reliable tool for calendars is that every rotation of Earth around the Sun (read ‘once a year’) we see the same stars at night. Did you notice that summertime and autumn are the seasons when Orion – the Pot is in the evening sky and winter and autumn is when Scorpius the Fishhook is in the evening sky. The stars do move as well, they orbit around the galaxy for instance but it takes thousands of year for them to change their true positions in the sky (we call that proper motion), which is why our sky is similar to the one our ancestors had a few thousand years ago.
For the next hundred years at least, as far as we are concerned, the Pleiades will disappear from the evening sky in April and will reappear in the dawn twilight just after mid-June as seen from Wellington.
step by step Instructions
To see Matariki, just follow the Milky Way left from the Southern Cross (Crux). This time of the year, in June, early in the morning the Southern Cross is at its lowest position in the sky. Actually when it points straight down as it does now, it points straight south.
Once you found the Southern Cross, keep going to the left, you will see the second brightest star in the sky, Canopus or AtuTAHI. So let’s count in Māori : Atutahi/Canopus – in the dawn sky will be floating high in the southeast. Tahi in Māori means One. Then keep following along the Milky Way, you will see low on the horizon blue TakuRUA/Sirius. Rua means two in Māori. Then, on the same line, look for the three stars from Orion’s belt, TauTORU. In Māori , toru means three. Tahi, Rua, Toru. One, two, three. Orion’s belt should be parallel to the horizon.
If you join Takurua/Sirius with Tautoru/Orion’s Belt and extend the line to the north, just passing Taumata Kuku (the Hyades and red Aldebaran, that look like a triangle), and follow just a little bit more to the north, you will find Matariki/the Pleiades.
Can you see the star cluster Pleiades in the sky at other times than Matariki?
Yes, you CAN see the Pleiades in the sky before Matariki. Matariki is not the only time when you can see the Pleiades. From Wellington, the Pleiades become visible in the dawn sky just after middle of June, if you’re tall enough to see beyond the eastern ridge. Then it will rise every day 4 minutes earlier and so throughout the year you will catch plenty of it.You can figure out the phases of the Moon around June solstice by looking at this site.
Do you need a pair of binoculars or a telescope to see the PLeiades?
No, you can see the stars with the naked eye, once your eyes adjusted to dark. This means, only use red light to check the time or your maps and avoid turning the light on.
But if you want to see them in detail, then absolutely!! Here are the binoculars we have and they are pretty good. You might need a tripod for big binoculars, but then the image is really steady if you don’t hold them in your arms and you can look at the stars for much longer.
Did you know?
When you observe the Pleiades from the other hemisphere, they appear upside-down.
This is because we are on the opposite side of the Earth. Even the Moon appears upside-down to the one that we observe in North America or Europe. It’s handy to know that for stargazing.
At approximately 440 light years away from Earth, the Pleiades stars are hot, young and blue, and with the naked eye you can see six of them; with a pair of binoculars you can see many more.
The best view is with smaller magnification binoculars, as they can fit more stars in the field of view. The Pleiades, or Messier 45, are about 115 million years old.
When the Pleiades were born, the dinosaurs saw them appear in the night sky.
The light from the Pleiades as we see it today left the cluster almost at the same time as Galileo was pointing his telescope to the heavens 400 years ago. He is also the first person to see them through a telescope.