Starry Pleasures Either Side Of Midnight

The pentagon-shaped constellation Auriga (Awe-RYE-guh) is up for easy viewing around 7 p.m. local time. Its brightest star is Capella. To its right are three stars in a skinny triangle nicknamed "the Kids". Aldebaran, Taurus' brightest star, is about "one fist" to the right. Maps created with Stellarium

There are those who watch and study the stars and planets during evening hours and those who prefer the morning hours for their cosmic connection. Today we’ll try to provide something for sky watchers on both sides of the midnight hour. And if you feel like switching sides or attempting to do both, have at it.

One of the season’s easiest constellations to identify is Auriga the Charioteer, which made the list of the original 48 ancient constellations described by the 2nd century Roman astronomer Ptolemy. Before Orion rises and steals all the thunder, go outside after dinner and face northeast. If you stick your fist out at arm’s length and look about three “fists” above the horizon, you can’t miss the white, twinkly spark Capella. It’s the brightest star in Auriga, a constellation shaped like a pentagon and spanning a bit less than two “fists” end to end. The figure of Auriga is depicted holding a chariot’s reins, but oddly, no chariot is outlined among his stars. Capella is a Roman name meaning “she-goat” after the goat Amaltheia that suckled the infant Zeus. Nearby are three fainter stars in a snug triangle – these are Amaltheia’s kids, or simply, “The Kids”.  The bottom right star of the pentagon used to be shared between neighboring Taurus the Bull and Auriga, but when firm constellation borders were set by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in 1930, it was assigned to Taurus as the star Beta. You may feel free, like I do, to still include it in Auriga to preserve the group’s geometrically-satisfying pentagonal outline. Just don’t tell the IAU.

When we look toward Auriga, we’re peering out to the outer rim of the Milky Way galaxy. Fewer stars pack the spaces between us and the rim compared to looking the other direction toward the galaxy’s hub. You’ll find the Milky Way dim here but not totally lacking. Take your binoculars and point them into the center of the pentagon. Among the individual stars across the field of view, you might stumble upon two or three denser clumps – the star clusters M36 and M38 – that we’ll examine more closely in an upcoming blog.

Leo stands high in the south tomorrow morning at the start of dawn. The third or last quarter moon joins Regulus, while the trio of Venus, Spica and Saturn catch the eye in the southeastern sky.

If you prefer starry mornings or just happen to be up tomorrow around 6 a.m., part the curtains and look south. There you’ll see the last quarter moon in conjunction with Leo the Lion’s brightest star Regulus. That’s not all. Look to the southeast for a trio of two bright planets – Saturn and Venus – and Virgo’s brightest star Spica.