Capella: Alpha Aurigae

α Aurigae


Alpha Aurigae is better known as Capella, the most northerly first-magnitude star.

To find the star, begin in Taurus and go all the way out to beta Tauri, the tip of the Bull's upper horn. Between this star and the North Pole is the bright and dominant Capella.

The star marks the Charioteer's left shoulder. Beta Aurigae, just to the east of Capella, is the Charioteer's right shoulder.

The Greeks considered Capella the She-Goat (which Capella means).

Just to the south and slightly ahead of Capella are the three 'kids': epsilon and zeta and eta. In binoculars the group makes a cosy compact group.

The most northerly of these stars -- epsilon -- is a late addition; in antiquity zeta and eta were known respectively as "the western kid" and "the eastern kid". The two make a nice colour contrast, orange and icy-blue.

Every 27 years epsilon's magnitude drops from 2.9 to 3.8 and remains so for a year before regaining its former brightness. The orbit is so precise that the star is a favourite subject for study.

Returning now to Capella, a little more than one field of view east is beta Aurigae (1.9).
      This star is named Menkalinan, which comes from the Arabic for "The Shoulder of the Rein Holder", or of the Charioteer. Northeast of beta and running south for ten degrees are a scattering of fifth-magnitude stars, the tips of the whip wielded by the Chariotter: They all have the same Greek label psi (psi1 to psi9): although psi8 is not included here for it is a bit further south. The whole region is greater than a binocular field, more like four scattered fields. Naked eye gives you the best view, but with mostly fifth magnitude stars, a good clear night is essential : naked eye.

Of particular interest here is psi5, which is a fine optical binary of yellow and blue components: 5.2, 8.4; 30, 36.2".

Back to Capella; with this star on your upper edge, move the glasses south-southwest one complete field, until eta and zeta are on the norther edge: binoculars. Omega Aurigae is a solitary star in the lower right quadrant. This telescopic binary (Struve 616) has a subtle contrast, yellow and orange: 5.0, 8.2; 1, 4.9".

The remaining binaries in Auruga we will be looking at form a 'V' from omega down to gamma then up to psi3. Click on phi Auriga on the map to continue.

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1999-2014 by Richard Dibon-Smith.