Auriga "The Charioteer" (pronounced oh-RYE-gah)
Auriga the Charioteer or Wagoner is a large ancient constellation, known to Babylonian and Greek astronomers, to which the Greek astronomer Ptolemy in 150 AD assigned fourteen stars. It is low in the sky and is partly hidden to observers in the south of New Zealand. (The sky view is for Auckland).
Auriga's leading star is Capella, the seventh brightest appearing star in the sky. It marks the Charioteer's left shoulder. The Greeks identified capella with the she-goat Amalthea who helped feed the infant Zeus. The stars ζ and η Aur are referred to as the Kids.
To find these constellations look north in the evening low down below Orion. From the north of New Zealand bright Capella should be visible. (It should be just visible from Christchurch with a good northern sky and very low horizon at just the right time: the maximum altitude of the star is about 1° above the horizon!)
Details of some of the objects shown in the chart.
α Aurigae (Capella, the little she-goat) is a magnitude 0.08 yellow star 42.2 light years away. It is actually a spectroscopic binary star with the stars orbiting each other every 0.28480 years (104 days), although they do not eclipse.
β Aur (Menkalinan, shoulder of the Charioteer) is magnitude 3.5 white star 97 light years away.
ε Aur is a white supergiant star 2038 light years away that actually is an enigmatic eclipsing binary star with an exceptionally long period of 27.06971 years. Normally it shines at magnitude 3.0, but every 27 years it sinks to magnitude 3.8 for about a year. Its next eclipse should be in 2010.
ζ Aur is an amazing eclipsing binary star system. It consists of an orange giant star orbited every 972 days by a small blue companion star. During eclipses the stars apparent magnitude drops from magnitude 3.7 to3.97. The system lies 788 light years away.
θ Aur is a magnitude 2.6 blue-white star with a white magnitude 7.5 companion. This is a tough double to split. The stars lie 173 light years away.
M 36 (NGC 1960) is a fine cluster of about 60 stars discovered by Le Gentil in 1749. It is visible in binoculars and resolvable into stars with small telescopes. It has a central region and several irregularly curved arms, giving a roughly spiral pattern. It lies about 4000 light years away.
M 37 (NGC 2099) is the richest open cluster of stars in Auriga, with about 150 stars about 4500 light years away. The cluster appears as a hazy, unresolved patch in binoculars, but small telescopes resolve it into faint sparkling stardust, with a brighter orange star at the centre.
M38 (NGC 1912) was also discovered by Le Gentil in 1749. It is a fine scattered cluster. but with a rather empty centre, and showing roughly the form of a oblique cross. The stars are elegantly dotted in arcs and small groups. It lies about 3600 light years away. Next to it to the south-west, lies the small fuzzy blob of NGC 1907, a much smaller and fainter cluster.
NGC 2281 is a binocular cluster of about 30 stars 5400 light years away. In a telescope the stars appear arranged in a crescent, with the four brighter stars forming a diamond shape.
Auriga lies well north of the celestial equator, as a result the entire constellation is only visible from the extreme north of New Zealand. The brightest star, Capella, rises above the horizon for places as far south as the latitude of Christchurch. At Christchurch its greatest altitude is only 1°, so a true horizon to the north would be needed to see the star which is above the horizon for only 2 hours. From Auckland, Capella is rises to about 7.5° and is above the horizon for over 5 hours.
In mid January, Capella is due north and highest at about 11 pm (NZDT), an hour later at the beginning of the month and an hour earlier at the end of the month.