Truth be told, there’s a lot to be said for being young. For all of the beauty and innate majesty that comes with age, there’s nothing like watching a teenager sprint to the finish of a three-mile race. Likewise, we can marvel at the towering redwoods in Muir Woods, but don’t we stand in greater awe at the three-foot sapling, knowing that all of its greatness is yet to come? So it is, I think, with stars. Some of the oldest ones in our galaxy are, perhaps, more than 10 billion years old. Sometimes gravity pulls them together into what we call globular clusters. Messier 13 in the constellation Hercules is a magnificent example that can be seen low in the northwestern sky throughout December. This tightly bound group of well over 100,000 stars has been around since nearly the beginning of the universe. Its magnificence is unquestioned.
Diagonally across the sky, however, much, much younger stars have also bound together, though considerably less densely, into another of the night sky’s gifts, the open cluster. The most well-known is the Pleiades. Also called The Seven Sisters, it graces the eastern sky early in the evening. A bit fuzzy to the naked eye, a pair of binoculars brings the sight into focus: bright blue stars around one hundred million years old galactic babies. And, unlike the stars of a globular cluster, it is much easier to discern details of each member of the group. We can define open clusters as a diffuse mass of youthful stars ranging in number from a couple of handfuls to upwards of several thousand.
In my opinion, the best of the lot is not the popular Pleiades, but a pair of clusters located a bit higher in our autumn sky and to the west. Between the constellations of Perseus and Cassiopeia rest two open clusters. Once you find them with either binoculars or a telescope, you will not be able to avert your gaze. They are, to me, the manifestation of the sheer joy and the endless possibility that comes with youth. Endless stars of all ages, sizes and colors stretch across the galaxy. But here, in this singular location, we find two groupings of very young, luminous stars, side by side. How, we really need to ask, can it get any better than this?
There’s no need to describe the image. Indeed, its description is entirely dependent upon the viewer. On a tour of Carlsbad Caverns many years ago a Park Ranger used the following language to give meaning to what I was seeing: how you describe the Cavern, he said, describes you. We see in such things what we, at the very least, hope to see in ourselves and in the people and places that touch our lives. The words we choose to explain a moment of awe also help to explain why we’re looking in the first place, and what we’re hoping to find.
The universe is so old that we stop trying to understand the depth of time. The numbers are simply too large. The formation of some open clusters, though, may coincide with the reign and demise of the dinosaurs that roamed the Earth. For me, that’s a lot easier to comprehend. The Perseus Double Cluster may be considerably younger even than that. Like kindergartners, they demand our attention and we are happy to give it. So, let’s say at 8:00 p.m. on December 15, find the “Big W” of Cassiopeia high overhead. Just to the east is Perseus. Between the two are the clusters. It’s like looking through the observation window in the newborn section of a hospital.
Perhaps, even if the past is prologue for everything we know, the future is still unwritten. Maybe if we celebrate the vitality of the stars in these open clusters, we’re celebrating our own.