Spring Star Clusters

The Magnificent Seven

An open star cluster is a group of up to a few thousand stars that were formed at the same time. Star clusters are held together by gravitational attraction when young, but usually only survive for a few hundred million years. As they make their epic journey around our galaxy they gradually break up as they pass close to other clusters and clouds of gas.

More than 1,100 open star clusters have been discovered in the Milky Way. Here are my magnificent seven, over half of which can be seen with the naked eye from our Dark Sky Park under good conditions. They are visible in the south to south west during late winter and early spring evenings.

The Magnificent Seven Spring Star Clusters
The Magnificent Seven Spring Star Clusters

The Hyades

The Hyades is our nearest open star cluster – just 153 light years away. This makes it a prominent object that is easily seen with the naked eye. It can be found in the constellation of Taurus where its brightest stars form a “V” shape along with the still brighter Aldeberan. Aldebaran itself however is not part of the Hyades because it is much closer to Earth and merely happens to lie along the same line of sight.

Around a dozen stars are visible to the naked eye, but several dozen can be seen through binoculars. Because the Hyades span over five degrees of sky they look far better in binoculars than a telescope which cannot fit them all in!

The age of the Hyades is estimated to be about 625 million years. In England the cluster was known as the “April Rainers” from an association with April showers, as recorded in the folk song “Green Grow the Rushes O”.

The Hyades
The Hyades

The Pleiades

The Pleiades are also easily visible with the naked eye, but at 444 light years are further away than the Hyades. They can be found to the north west of the Hyades. A prominent sight in winter and early spring, they have been know to cultures all around the world since antiquity.

The nine brightest stars of the Pleiades are named after the Seven Sisters of Greek mythology: Sterope, Merope, Electra, Maia, Taygeta, Celaeno and Alcyone. These were the daughters of Atlas by Pleione.

The cluster has over 1,000 members and is dominated by hot blue and luminous stars that have formed within the last 100 million years.

The Pleaides
The Pleaides

M44 – The Beehive

To the naked eye the Beehive looks like a large area of nebulosity covering almost three times the diameter of the full moon. You can find it on the western side of the centre of the constellation of Cancer.

Ancient Greeks and Romans perceived this star cluster as a manger from which two donkeys are eating. The adjacent stars Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis are the donkeys themselves.

Containing over 350 stars it lies a little further away then the Pleiades at a distance of 577 light years. Viewed through binoculars it springs to life, filling a good proportion of the field of view with dozens of stars sprinkled over a hazy background. A modest telescope reveals groups of bluish-white stars arranged in pairs and triplets. Their age and proper motion within our galaxy coincides with those of the Hyades, suggesting they may share similar origins.


At 3,900 light years Messier 35 is much further away than the Pleiades. It is nevertheless visible to the naked eye from our Dark Sky Park under good conditions. Look in the constellation of Gemini where it appears as a faint misty glow just above the end of Castor’s foot. It has around 400 member stars covering an area almost the size of the full moon.

Through 10 x 50 binoculars, the cluster appears as a hazy rectangle with around a dozen individual stars visible. An 80mm telescope reveals many more stars scattered across the face of the cluster.


Messier 37 is the richest and brightest of the three Auriga clusters and is about 4,500 light years from Earth. However it lies at the limit of naked eye visibility so binoculars will be needed. It can be found just to the south east of the “Pentagon” shape formed by the five main stars of Auriga.

A pair of 10 x 50 binoculars will reveal a large hazy patch of light. Through a small (100mm) telescope about a dozen or so tenth magnitude stars can be seen concentrated towards the centre of the group. The stars appear faint and surrounded by a misty haze, giving the impression of a sprinkling of diamonds or stardust!

M36 – The Pinwheel

Messier 36 is also at the limit of naked eye visibility and lies around 4,300 light years distant from Earth. It can be found to the north west of M37, just inside the Pentagon.

Through binoculars it appears as a small fuzzy patch of light which has at least 60 members. When viewed through larger binoculars or a small telescope, the fuzziness of M36 is transformed into a sprinkling of stars. An 80mm telescope at low / medium powers reveals about 15 or so bright stars scattered throughout the cluster. Most of them appear white or bluish white and are arranged in an “X” shape.

M38 – The Starfish

Although Messier 38 is too faint to be seen with the naked eye it is still an easy binocular target. Lying some 3,500 light years away from Earth, it can be found just south of the centre of the Pentagon.

When viewed through 10 x 50 binoculars, it appears large and misty with the brightest stars just about resolvable. A modest telescope will reveal many more individual stars. Some say that this cluster reminds them of a starfish!

The Queen and Pegasus


To find Cassiopeia first find the Plough. Then draw an imaginary line through the Pole Star from the star that joins the handle of the Plough to it’s body. That will take you to the big “W” of Cassiopeia.

Cassiopeia was the wife of Cepheus, King of Ethiopia, and mother of princess Andromeda. She boasted that her daughter Andromeda was more beautiful than the Nereids. Poseidon, who was the Nereids father did not agree. So he sent a monster, Cetus, to terrorise the Ethiopian coast. When Cassiopeia and Cepheus consulted an oracle to find out how to get rid of the monster they were told to tie Andromeda to a rock for the monster’s dinner.

In a gross dereliction of parental responsibility Cassiopeia and Cepheus followed the oracle’s recommendation. However just in the nick of time along comes Perseus, rescues Andromeda and they all lived happily ever after… except for Cassiopeia and Cepheus: Zeus had them chained to their thrones and put them in the night sky to spin around the Pole Star for ever as punishment for their despicable behaviour.

Star Map of Cassiopeia & Pegasus
Star Map of Cassiopeia & Pegasus

Now get those binoculars out and check out these two star clusters in Cassiopeia:

Caroline’s Rose

NGC7789 is also known as “The White Rose” Cluster or “Caroline’s Rose” because when seen visually, the loops of stars and dark lanes look like the swirling pattern of rose petals as seen from above. It was discovered by Caroline Herschel in 1783.

Caroline's Rose
Caroline’s Rose

The Owl Cluster

NGC 457 is also known as the Owl Cluster or ET Cluster. It has two bright stars – the eyes of the Owl or ET, that can be seen staring back at you as you spy the cluster through your binoculars.

The Owl Cluster
The Owl Cluster


In Greek mythology Pegasus was a winged horse with magical powers. There are many stories told of his exploits: He helped Perseus slay the gorgon Medusa and Bellerophon to kill the Chimera. He was also the bearer of thunder and lighting for Zeus, the chief of the gods.

The constellation of Pegasus can be recognised from the “Square of Pegasus” – a large and conspicuous feature of the autumn night sky.

Messier 15 – A Globular Cluster

Right out on the western edge of Pegasus is M15 – a globular cluster. Globular star clusters are believed to be the remains of ancient galaxies cannibalised by the Milky Way. Some of them are almost as old as the universe itself.

Messier 15
Messier 15

Through binoculars M15 will appear as a small fuzzy ball of light. In reality it contains over 100,000 stars and is 12 billion years old. You can find it using the star map above.

The Lion and the Crab

Finding The Celestial Lion

To find Leo start at our old friend the Plough and follow the two pointer stars in the opposite direction from the Pole Star. Just under a quarter of the way across the sky look out for a group of stars shaped like a backwards question mark.

This is the Sickle – the head of Leo the Lion. The star at the bottom of the question mark is Regulus, his shining heart and one of the brightest stars in the night sky.

Starhop to Leo

Leo The Lion

In Greek mythology, Leo was said to be the Nemean Lion, killed by Hercules during the first of his twelve labours. The Nemean Lion would take young women as hostages to its lair in a cave. Warriors from a nearby town had all been eaten in their attempts to rescue them because the lion’s hide was proof against all known weapons. Hercules quickly realised that in order to defeat the Lion it was going to be a bare knuckle job. Slipping quietly into the cave Hercules engaged it at close quarters. As the Lion pounced he grabbed it in mid air, catching the Lion’s forelegs in one hand and it’s hind legs in the other. Bending it backwards he broke its back and freed the trapped maidens. Zeus, chief of the Greek gods commemorated his efforts by putting the Lion in the sky.

The Beehive (M44)

Move 25 degrees west from the centre of Leo (the distance between your outstretched thumb and little finger at arm’s length) and look for a fuzzy patch. This is the Beehive cluster in the constellation of Cancer the Crab.

The Beehive cluster looks like a nebulous patch of light to the naked eye under dark skies. Through binoculars it looks like a swarm of bees buzzing round a hive. It has been known since ancient times and is sometimes called Praesepe meaning “the manger” from Latin.

Also known as Messier 44, the Beehive is one of the nearest open clusters to the solar system. Even so the light that we see today started on it’s way here during the Wars of the Roses. The Beehive contains around a thousand stars – more than most other nearby clusters.

The Beehive Cluster
The Beehive Cluster (wiki commons)

The Crab

The Beehive cluster lies in the middle of the constellation of Cancer the Crab. Cancer is such a faint constellation that it could easily be missed if it were not for the Beehive cluster.

During Hercules’ epic battle with the multi headed Hydra, Hera sent Karkinos the crab to distract him. However quick witted Hercules swiftly dispatched the crab by kicking it with such force that it ended up in the sky. Hera gave Karkinos a permanent place in the starry heavens in gratitude for it’s efforts.

The Charioteer

Finding Auriga – The Charioteer

To find the Charioteer first of all find the Plough. Then draw a line through the upper two stars of the Plough away from the handle to find the bright star Capella and the constellation of Auriga. The five main stars of Auriga are sometimes called The Pentagon because of the shape they make in the night sky.



In Greek mythology, Auriga is identified with the hero Erichthonius. Erichthonius was the inventor of the quadriga, the four-horse chariot, created in the image of the Sun’s chariot. It was this chariot that helped him win the battle for Athens. Subsequently Zeus put him in the night sky in recognition of his ingenuity and heroic deeds.

Traditional illustrations of Auriga represent it as a charioteer. He holds a goat over his left shoulder and has two kids under his left arm. The Greeks associated Capella with the mythological she-goat Amalthea, who breast-fed the infant Zeus. Just under Capella there is a small triangle of stars known as the Kids.

Open Star Clusters in Auriga

An open star cluster is a group of up to a few thousand stars of roughly similar age. There are over 1,000 open star clusters in the Milky Way

Open star clusters are formed from the same molecular cloud and bound together by gravity. They usually only survive for a few hundred million years. After that they break up following close encounters with other clusters and clouds of gas as they orbit the Milky Way.

Almost any pair of binoculars will allow you to spot the Auriga clusters as faint patches of light against the background stars of the Milky Way.

The Pinwheel cluster (Messier 36) is the youngest of the three clusters at 25 million years. It can be found just to the east of M38 within the same binocular field. There are over 60 stars in this cluster which lies about 4,300 light years away from Earth.

Messier 37 is the brightest of the three clusters and is one binocular field to the east of M36. It contains over 500 stars and is between 350 and 550 million years old.

Messier 38 is called the Starfish Cluster because of it’s conspicuous “X” shape as seen through a telescope. It can be found just to the west of M36. It is about 4,200 light years away and around 220 million years old.

The Eagle, the Arrow and the Fox

The Summer Triangle

During the early evenings of September the Summer Triangle lies high in the south. In October it is to the south-west and by November it is in the west. To find it first look for the brightest star in the sky. That is Vega in the constellation of Lyra. Next look to it’s left to find Deneb in Cygnus. Finally look below Deneb to find Altair in the constellation of Aquila. These three stars form the summer triangle.

The Summer Triangle
The Summer Triangle

Aquila – The Eagle

Altair is the brightest star in the constellation of Aquila. In Greek mythology, Aquila was the eagle that carried Zeus’ thunderbolts.

Barnard’s “E”

On a clear moonless night look just above and to the right of Altair in Aquila using binoculars. You should be able to spot a mysterious dark “E” silhouetted against the faint background glow of the Milky Way.

This strange shape is a dark nebula; a cold cloud of interstellar gas and dust, so dense that it obscures the light from the stars behind it. These dark nebulae are where new stars will eventually be born.

Barnard’s “E” is named after Edward Barnard (1857 – 1923), a Victorian astronomer who compiled a list of dark markings in the sky.

Barnard’s “E” – credit Jon Marcus

The Arrow and the Fox

The constellation of Sagitta (the Arrow) can be found just above Aquila. Although small, it was recognised as an arrow by several ancient civilisations including the Persians, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans.

Vulpecula (The Fox) lies just above Sagitta. Unlike many other constellations it has no mythology associated with it. Vulpecula was introduced by the Polish astronomer Johannes Hevelius during the late 17th century.

The Coathanger (Brocchi’s Cluster)

The eye and brain are excellent at seeing meaningful patterns in random collections of stars. Asterisms are obvious groupings of stars that are not one of the traditional constellations

The Coathanger is an unmistakable asterism despite being upside down! Find it about one binocular field to the north west of the western end of Sagitta. Although it’s stars appear to be close together, they are a chance alignment at very different distances from us.

The Coathanger – Credit Petr Novak

The Dumbbell Nebula

A short distance to the east lies the Dumbbell Nebula. It is the biggest and brightest planetary nebula in the northern sky. Find it about half a binocular field north of the eastern end of Sagitta. It looks like a small faint planet just below the central star of a distinctive “M” shaped asterism.

A planetary nebula consists of an expanding shell of gas ejected from an old red giant star late in it’s life. They are relatively short- lived, lasting only a few tens of thousands of years, compared to a typical stellar lifetime of several billion years. They are called planetary nebulae because William Herschel thought that they resembled planets when viewed through his telescope in the 1780’s. The name has stuck although it is misleading.

The Dumbbell Nebula


Images by Jon Marcus and Petr Novak are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The Hunter and the Seven Sisters

Orion is one of the most recognizable constellations in the winter sky.

The easiest way to find Orion is to go outside in the evening this winter and look to the south east. You are looking for three bright stars close together in almost a straight line. These three stars represent Orion’s belt. The two bright stars to the north are his shoulders and the two to the south are his feet.


Orion the Hunter could walk on water because he was the son of the sea-god Poseidon. After many adventures Orion walked to the island of Crete where he hunted with the goddess Artemis. During the hunt, he threatened to kill every beast on Earth. But Mother Earth objected and sent a giant scorpion to kill him. After Orion’s death, Zeus placed him among the constellations adding the Scorpion as well, to commemorate the hero’s death.

One of the show pieces of Orion is the Great Nebula. To find it first locate Orion’s Belt, which contains the row of three bright stars. Next, look below his belt for a vertical row of fainter stars marking the Hunter’s Sword. Look for the fuzzy “star” in the middle of the Sword. That’s the Orion Nebula. Binoculars will give you a better view.

The Great Nebula
The Great Nebula

The Orion Nebula is a stellar nursery where new stars are being born. Stars form when clumps of hydrogen and other gases contract under their own gravity. As the gas collapses, the central clump grows stronger and the gas heats to extreme temperatures. When the temperature gets high enough, nuclear fusion ignites the gas to form a star. The star is ‘born’ when it begins to emit enough radiative energy to halt it’s gravitational collapse. Detailed observations have revealed approximately 700 stars in various stages of formation within this nebula.

The Pleiades – The Seven Sisters

Start by looking for the three stars in a diagonal row that make up Orion’s belt. Draw an imaginary line between those stars up and to the right. Continue your line, and you should come to a group of stars that looks like the letter “V”. That is the face of Taurus – The Bull. A little to the right of Taurus is a small clump of stars. They are the Pleiades, looking almost like a tiny dipper. Once again binoculars will give you a better view.

The Pleiades were the seven daughters of Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione. After Atlas was forced to carry the heavens on his shoulders, Orion began to pursue all of the Pleiades. To comfort their father, Zeus transformed them first into doves, and then into stars. The constellation of Orion is said to still pursue The Pleiades across the night sky.

The Pleaides
The Pleaides

The Pleiades is an open star cluster containing hot middle-aged stars. It is one of the nearest star clusters to Earth. Probably formed from a nebula similar to the Orion Nebula around 100 million years ago, the cluster is dominated by hot blue and extremely luminous stars.

The faint reflection nebulosity around the brightest stars was at first thought to be left over from the formation of the cluster, but is now known to be an unrelated dust cloud in interstellar space, through which the stars are currently passing. Astronomers estimate that the cluster will survive for about another 250 million years, after which it’s stars will disperse.

Getting the best view

Discovering a dark place shouldn’t be too difficult on the Glenlivet Estate. I find my garden is as good a place as any. Switch off any outdoor lights and allow your eyes to acclimatise to the dark. In the dark your sensitive night time black and white vision will allow to you see more in the night sky, but it does take a while to kick in.

Avoid looking directly at any visible lighting. That will destroy your night vision almost instantly and you will have to wait another ten minutes before your dark adapted eyes are beginning to work again.

Because you are using your night vision you will only be seeing in black and white so don’t expect to see the Orion Nebula in full colour. Colour images can only be produced with long photographic exposures. Nevertheless witnessing the wonders of the night sky for yourself is an altogether different level of experience compared to admiring pictures by the Hubble space telescope from the comfort of your armchair.

Get out there and look up at our glorious dark skies!