Auriga – the charioteer

January 14, 2018

Astronomy

Auriga is a constellation with a multi-colored past. There are many stories and references here that have braided together over time. One thread is that the star pattern represents a brave charioteer, although precisely which charioteer is in question. If you connect the dots you get a pointy helmet like charioteers use to wear.

One contender for the role is a guy named Erichthonius. He invented the four-horse chariot. One might think you simply take a three-horse chariot and add one more horse. I mean, that’s the first thing I would try, but apparently there is more to it than that. Anyway Erichthonius was eventually turned in a star pattern by the gods and Ptolemy added it to his maps a couple of thousand years ago.

Auriga is usually drawn carrying a mommy goat and two baby goats. This part of the story is completely separate from the chariot thing. There are various chariot stories to choose from but none of them involve goats. It’s just that the constellation was also known to some as the Shepherd and the two little stars under the bright star Capella are known even today at The Kids.

Meanwhile Capella itself has forever been known as the goat star, in fact the name is Latin for she-goat. Some stories associate Capella with a particular she-goat named Amaltheia. She was the one who supplied milk to Zeus when he was but a wee god-baby. There is a moon orbiting very close to Jupiter which is named Amaltheia because Jupiter and Zeus are the same guy.

So now we have the awkward situation of a great fighter going into battle in his mighty high-tech war machine, with the kids in tow. It’s tough enough going on vacation with baby humans in the back seat, let alone to war, and let alone with frolicking goats.

There are three Messier objects in Auriga, the open clusters M36, M37, and M38. All three are roughly four thousand light years away or so, more or less. If you are doing a Messier Marathon you can quickly tick three objects off the list by scanning Auriga with binoculars.

Another interesting thing about this area of the sky is that it is exactly opposite to us from the galactic center. It’s the galactic anti-center. We are wedged in between the Sagittarian Arm and the Perseid Arm of the Milky Way galaxy. When you look towards Auriga you are looking outward at the Perseid Arm, which blocks our view to some degree of the outer rim. If you want to visit the edge, head towards Auriga and just keep going.

Carpe Noctem

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