Do you have a favourite seasonal sky? Perhaps it’s winter, when Orion, Taurus, Gemini and Canis Major dominate. Or maybe summer, when the Milky Way, with its myriad clusters and nebulae, flows through Cygnus, Scutum and Sagittarius. Autumn, of course, displays the immortal Perseus/Andromeda legend through its most prominent constellations, and offers Messier 31, the Cassiopeia clusters and the Double Cluster to keep us enthralled. One of my favourite seasons is winter, and one constellation that I particularly enjoy exploring is Auriga, the Charioteer.
The constellation’s shape is distinctive and includes the brilliant circumpolar star Capella — the fourth brightest star visible from Canadian latitudes. Tucked within the pentagram are the star clusters Messier 36 and 38, plus a little line of stars known to many as the “leaping minnow.” (To me it looks like an upturned butter knife.) A third Messier cluster, M37, can be found a few degrees to the east or left of the pentagram. All of these objects can be seen in binoculars and are even more lovely in a small telescope. I enjoy comparing the three Messier clusters without checking my previous notes. Each one has its own personality and identity. I encourage you to make your own comparisons, so I won’t prejudice you by describing them here.
Finally, there’s NGC 2281, the “diamond locket,” one of the sky’s prettiest, yet strangely neglected clusters. It’s found roughly midway between Castor in Gemini and Beta Aurigae. Two “stars” in the locket actually are doubles, adding to this object’s appeal.
Perhaps a night spent in Auriga will convince you that winter has its virtues, in spite of the often cloudy and cold weather.
David A. Rodger is an editor, a writer, broadcaster and an amateur astronomer living in North Vancouver, British Columbia. From 1967 to 1980, he served as the first director of Vancouver’s H.R. MacMillan Planetarium.