Why are the Pleiades called the Seven Sisters?

The famous and beautiful Pleiades star cluster, which lies between 429 and 448 light years from us in the constellation Taurus the Bull, contains at least 2,109 stars that were formed around 125 million years ago—relatively recently on an astronomical timescale.  But when you look at the Pleiades with the unaided eye, unless you have unusually good vision and excellent sky conditions, you’ll see only six Pleiads.  If you see more than that, you’ll probably be able to see 8 or 9 Pleiads, maybe more.  But not seven.  So, why are the Pleiades called the Seven Sisters?

Here’s my conjecture.  Take a look at the Pleiades on a dark, moonless night. What do you see?  I think you’ll see a group of stars forming a tiny dipper shape, reminiscent of the much larger Little Dipper.

How many stars make up the Little Dipper shape?  Seven.  How many stars make up the Big Dipper shape?  Seven.  How many bright stars does nearby Orion have?  Seven.  Given this, and the fact that seven has long been considered a mystical number, it comes as no surprise, perhaps, that the Pleiades are called the Seven Sisters and not the Six Sisters or the Eight Sisters.  How many do you see?

The Pleiades will culminate1 at midnight for SW Wisconsinites on Friday night / Saturday morning, November 17/18.

1cross the celestial meridian; reach their highest point in the sky, due south

References
Bouy H., et al., 2015, A&A, 577, A148
Galli P. A. B., Moraux E., Bouy H., Bouvier J., et al., 2017, A&A, 598, A48
Stauffer J. R., Schultz G., Kirkpatrick J. D., 1998, ApJ, 499, L19

Eridanus Delights

The sixth largest constellation in the sky stretches from near Rigel on the west side of Orion down to 1st-magnitude lucida Achernar (declination -57°), a star that rotates so rapidly that its polar diameter is not even ¾ its equatorial diameter (Domiciano de Souza et al. 2014).  Achernar (α Eri) is appropriately named.  It means “The End of the River” in Arabic.

Eridanus, the River, contains two very special, easily seen, stars. 40 Eridani (also known as Keid and Omicron2 Eridani), a visual triple star system (magnitudes 4.4, 9.5, and 11.2) just 16.3 light years away, presents the most easily observed white dwarf star, 9.5-magnitude 40 Eri B, visible in any telescope.

A little further west we can find 3.7-magnitude Epsilon Eridani, the nearest star beyond the Alpha Centauri system thought to harbor one or more planets. Compared to our Sun, ε Eri is cooler (K2V), much younger (200-800 Myr), and somewhat metal-deficient (74% solar), and it is just 10.5 light years away. This youthful star still sports a dusty disk between radii 35 and 75 AU (Greaves et al. 1998), inside of which its putative planet, Epsilon Eridani b—at least 0.6 to 0.9 Jupiter masses—travels around the star in a highly elliptical orbit, completing one revolution every 6.85 to 7.26 years. At periastron, Epsilon Eridani b lies between 1.0 and 2.1 AU from its parent star, and at apastron, its distance is 4.9 to 5.8 AU (Mizuki et al. 2016). However, the existence of this or any other planets in the system is still far from certain, primarily due to the high level of photospheric activity that is difficult to disentangle from the radial velocity signals of any possible orbiting planets (Giguere et al. 2016).

References
Domiciano de Souza, A., Kervella, P., et al. 2014, A&A, 569, A10
Giguere, M. J., Fischer, D. A., et al. 2016, ApJ, 824, 150
Greaves, J. S., Holland, W. S., et al. 1998, ApJL, 506, L133
Mizuki, T., Yamada, T., et al. 2016, A&A, 595, A79