Lookup Column: Auriga the Chariot Driver powers up – Life-style – Aurora Advertiser – Aurora, MO
Look straight up at around 9 p.m. on the next clear night. If you live in mid-northern latitudes, you’ll be gazing at the beautiful, bright yellow star Capella and its interesting constellation, Auriga the Chariot Driver.
We can think of it as a star pattern for the people who make a living driving a chariot. Next it will be taxi and bus drivers.
According to Greek legend, this extremely old constellation represents Erichthnoius, the fourth king of Athens, the son of Vulcan and Minerva. He had trouble walking and invented a four-horse cart.
Traditionally, Auriga is depicted as a chariot with the driver holding a goat and her children. Three of the darker stars in the outline of the constellation are called “children”.
Capella is the third brightest visible star (magnitude 0.08) in the northern hemisphere and is so close to the pole that Capella is circumpolar north of 44 degrees latitude and never falls below the horizon. Where I live in northeast Pennsylvania (just under 42 degrees), Capella dives briefly below the flat northern horizon every day.
Capella is actually a group of four stars in the same system and about 43 light years away.
The “children” are a little south of Capella. One of these stars, Epsilon Aurigae, is an unusual double star. Every 27 years or so, the star’s brightness decreases by almost a whole order of magnitude, from +2.92 to +3.83, and remains darkest for 640 to 730 days.
The last fainting ended in 2011.
Theories about the behavior of this star raged in astronomical circles. Since 2008 the most popular model has said that the brighter star of this system is orbited by a companion surrounded by a massive, opaque disk of dust.
The moon will reach full stage on Thursday, January 28th this week, making Auriga’s darker stars difficult to see with the naked eye.
After January 28th, the moon rises later and later and gives us an ever longer evening window with relative darkness in which more starlight can be seen.
When the sky is dark enough, use binoculars to scan the stars of Auriga.
The Milky Way runs through Auriga and is faintly visible outside the city lights on clear, moonless nights. The Milky Way Band, which consists of adjacent, overlapping arms of our large Milky Way spiral galaxy, presents a multitude of stars and open star clusters.
A telescope shows even more, but binoculars will show you the three brightest star clusters in Auriga. The French astronomer Charles Messier (1730-1817), who compiled a catalog of deep-sky objects that he could call comets, listed these clusters as M37, M36, and M38 in that order.
No two star clusters are alike in richness, configuration, or how easily they are seen. The Pleiades are certainly the most famous open star clusters, they are bright and compact. The Pleiades are located on the lower right (southwest) of the Auriga.
M37, M36, and M38 are all rich in stars, but M37 leads the other two and is the brightest.
M37 shines with a strength of +6.2 and is visible to the naked eye as a blurred “star” on a very dark, rural night.
The Pleiades are so important to our eyes because the cluster is relatively close, 444 light years away.
M37 is listed as 4,200 light years away, and M36 and M38, both around 3,900 light years from the Sun. Imagine our sky if these clusters were as close as the Pleiades!
The Auriga clusters appear as fuzzy spots in the binoculars, which, depending on the binoculars and sky conditions, are partially resolved into stars. A small telescope is needed to show them in their glory.
Auriga’s outline is in the shape of an uneven pentagon depending on how you connect the points (I mean stars). If you think of Capella as the chariot driver’s eye, you can think of the “kids” stars nearby as the nose. A darker star can also be connected to make a cap for our driver.
The star pattern is also interesting because one of the corner stars is not in Auriga at all. The star on the other end of Capella’s pattern is Beta Tauri, a star in the adjacent pattern, Taurus the Taurus.
Auriga and Taurus both ride higher in the sky than winter’s most famous constellation, Orion.
Keep looking to the sky!
Peter Becker is the Editor-in-Chief at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at [email protected] Please indicate in which newspaper or on which website you read this column.