Everything You Need to Know About the Auriga Constellation
Throughout the entirety of our shared human history, the stars have captivated us. A constant source of beauty and wonder, many have sought to understand their complex inner workings, to draw parallels with popular mythology, and find some type of meaning in these distant bodies. Nowadays, we’ll even adopt stars and officially name them after ourselves or others.
But our long-term fascination and familiarity with them still do not mean we know everything. The gaps in our knowledge realistically far outweigh the bits we do know, leaving plenty yet to discover about our stars and the constellations they form. Luckily, we can help with that. Want to know a little bit more today than you knew yesterday? Here’s everything you need to know about the Auriga constellation.
What is the Auriga Constellation?
The Auriga constellation is a pentagonal collection of stars neighboring the more well-known constellations of Gemini, Taurus, and Perseus. It’s one of the 88 modern constellations, although it has a much longer known history than that, finding itself as one of the 48 constellations named by the ancient astronomer Ptolemy. Its more exact location is within the northern hemisphere’s first quadrant, seen at latitudes between around +90° and -40°. Because of this positioning, though, actually catching sight of the constellation can sometimes be an issue.
It’s most visible around 9 o’clock in the evening, especially between late February and early March, so any budding astronomers might want to consider bundling on up before going stargazing. A bit of a hassle, but with it containing one of the brightest stars in our sky and having pretty interesting ties to Roman and Greek mythology, it’s more than worth the effort.
Having trouble spotting the constellation? Try using Orion as a guide. Once you find Orion, look upwards to find Taurus. Directly above that again, you should see the pentagon shape that makes up Auriga.
By Till Credner - Own work: AlltheSky.com
The Constellation’s Stars
Like any other constellation, Auriga is made up of several different stars. The most notable one? Capella, a star 43 light-years away that’s among one of the most luminous in our system. In fact, it’s typically regarded as the sixth brightest star that’s visible to us here on Earth and the third brightest in the northern celestial hemisphere -- although it’s technically a collection of stars in and of itself – comprised of two yellow, large binary stars and two red, binary dwarfs that are a little fainter.
Besides Capella, ten other stars make up the constellation of Auriga along with Messier objects M36, M37, and M38. Not quite as bright or clear as Capella, they come across as the fuzzier portions of Auriga when viewed with binoculars. Other portions of the constellation remain more visible, though. Gamma Aurigae (also known as Beta Tauri), Iota Aurigae (or Hasseleh and Kabdhilinan), Delta Aurigae, and Lambda Aurigae are just a few of these despite their varying classifications and ages.
The latter of these stars might be particularly surprising to people because of this. Lambda Aurigae is a very old star, at least as far as the Auriga constellation is concerned. It’s even older than our sun, reaching the end of its hydrogen-fusing lifespan, clocking in somewhere around 6.2 billion years old. Some other stars dim in similar conditions, becoming duller as they cool down, but Lambda Aurigae remains as luminous as ever.
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So, now that you know a little more about Auriga’s physicality, you probably want to get in the loop when it comes to the constellation's backstory. Where did the name come from? Who exactly is Auriga, anyways?
Well, the name is actually Latin and can be roughly translated to “charioteer,” something that makes sense with the stories tied to it. Experts point to it being rooted in ancient Greek or Roman myth, although historical circles have some disagreement about the specifics. The most commonly accepted history is that the Auriga constellation represents Erichthonius, a legendary Athenian king and son of Hephaestus.
The story goes that Erichthonius was raised by Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war and patron deity of Athens after his father shunned him. Because of her station, he was able to learn several skills that usually wouldn’t have been available to him, including the ability to tame horses. He then quickly decided to put this to good use, developing the quadriga – or the four-horse chariot – an invention that would ultimately turn the tide of war in his favor, helping him become king of Athens and later be elevated to the heavens by Zeus.
Of course, there are also plenty of other interpretations out there that could just as easily be the real story behind Auriga’s naming. Another common theory posits that the charioteer in question is not Erichthonius at all and rather Myrtillus, the charioteer of King Oenomaus who’d eventually be murdered by his own co-conspirator Pelops. Just which interpretation is fact and which is fiction, though, will forever be lost to history.