High Flying Chariot

Located high in the night sky above the constellation of Orion is Auriga the Charioteer. Alpha Auriga or Capella shines at magnitude zero and at a declination of +44 degrees, is a circumpolar star for most of Canada. It never sets from northern latitudes of +46 degrees and higher. Capella is a yellow star with a spectral classification of G8 and a surface temperature slightly hotter than our sun (G2). Capella lies 43 light-years from us and has an extremely close yellow companion (G0) but a telescope will always show one single point of light. Within this system, Capella Aa measures 12 times and Capella Ab 9 times the width of our sun. These giants orbit each other in just 104 days at a separation of .72 astronomical unit or the distance between our sun and Venus.

Auriga fits perfectly on the winter Milky Way and is home to a few fantastic objects to both observe and photograph. Located towards the lower part of the asterism is the trio of open clusters labelled as M38 - the Starfish Cluster, M36 - the Pinwheel Cluster and my favourite M37 - the Salt and Pepper Cluster. Their population is around 100, 60 and 150 stars respectively and all reside about 4,500 light-years from us. Next time you look at these objects, their starlight left when the Pyramids were being built.

Throw into the mix IC 410 and you have a wonderful place to use your digital or CCD camera to take long-exposure images. IC 410 is an emission nebula spanning 100 light-years wide and lies some 1200 lights years away. Amongst the fine detail of stellar formation are two odd-looking squiggles called the tadpoles. Their appearance is a result of the stellar winds blowing from nearby NGC 1893.

For a challenge might I would like to suggest the combination of NGC 1931, IC417 and Sharpless 2-237. The group lies at a distance of approximately 10,000 light-years and measuring 3 arc minutes across. This is a combination of an emission and reflection nebula and is listed at magnitude 10.0. Another interesting object is the small but bright planetary nebula labelled IC 2149. At low power, it looks like a typical 11th magnitude sun but the nebulosity reveals itself in higher magnifications. IC 2149 is an estimated 5,200 light-years away.

Venus is located high in the western sky and sets around 8:40 pm local time at the beginning of February and an hour later at the end of the month. It will continue to climb the western sky until March 24 – when it reaches 46 degrees from the sun. Venus and the crescent moon will form a nice pairing on the nights of February 26 and 27. As for the other planets, you will have to wake up early to first catch Mars to the left of Antares. Both appear bright orange but Mars is slightly fainter. The red planet rises in the southeast just after 4 a.m. local time at the beginning of the month with Jupiter less than two hours after that and ending with Saturn crawling out of the solar glare some 40 minutes after Jupiter. The moon will occult Mars on the morning of February 18. In Ottawa, the sun will be five degrees above the horizon so places farther west will benefit from the darkness. The planet is also close to the Lagoon Nebula.

This month’s Full Snow Moon occurs on February 9 with New Moon (lunation 1202) on February 22.

Until next month, clear skies everyone.

Gary Boyle

eNews date: 
Saturday, February 1, 2020