An unappreciated constellation that is now at the early evening zenith is Auriga. I say unappreciated, not only because it does not get the name recognition of nearby Gemini and Orion, but because it doesn’t have the eye-catching asterisms found in those neighbors.
In fact, one of its brighter stars, Elnath, is shared with Taurus and gets the designation beta-Tauri. I guess the bull needs Elnath or it would be missing the end of one of its horns.
The brightest star in Auriga is Capella. At a magnitude 0.08, it is the sixth brightest star in the entire sky. At 8 p.m., Capella will be within 10 degrees of zenith. Auriga’s other bright stars form a roughly flattened circle about 20 degrees across, between Capella and Elnath. The Pleiades are just over 20 degrees to the west.
In mythology Auriga is the charioteer. However, my limited 21st-century imagination can only show me a flat tire.
One reason I like Auriga is because of the open clusters within its borders. Messier objects M36, M37 and M38 are open clusters easily visible in small telescopes. These clusters all show nice, distinct groupings against the rich background of Milky Way stars. The point in the Milky Way that is directly opposite the galactic center is within Auriga.
The planets are obviously aligned right now, as was verified with the Broncos victory in the Super Bowl last Sunday. By the way, if you believe in such coincidences, you are welcome to use this alignment to support, or foreshadow, whatever event you want. If, on the other hand, you just want to see all the visible planets at the same time, then head outside before dawn.
Because it has been in the news, I have had people ask me about this planet grouping, but they are very widely spaced in the sky. Looking from Jupiter to Mercury spans over 120 degrees, which is two-thirds of the width of the sky.
Jupiter, the largest but only the second brightest of the group at magnitude -2.4 leads the pack and rises about 8 p.m. Much dimmer Mars, at magnitude 0.7, rises next, around 1 a.m. Saturn, at magnitude 0.5, is a couple of hours later. Venus, still the brightest at almost magnitude -4, doesn’t rise until 5:30 a.m.
The most challenging planet to see will be Mercury. For a planet, it moves almost as fast as the Broncos defense. It was at its greatest western elongation Feb. 7. It is now rising around 5:45 a.m. and is about 4 degrees from Venus. Within a couple of weeks, it will once again be hidden in the glare of the sun.
If you want a real telescope challenge, and have a scope larger than 12 inches, the dwarf planet Pluto is also in the chain. With Fort Lewis College’s 16-inch telescope, Pluto only shows up as another dim dot in photographs.
And when you go out in the evening to take a look at Orion, Taurus and Gemini, don’t forget to look a little higher and find Auriga.
Charles Hakes is a visiting assistant professor in the physics and engineering department at Fort Lewis College and is director of the Fort Lewis Observatory. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.