How to find and see Messier 37 in Auriga

Feb 25

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2/25/2013 3:18 PM  RssIcon

Auriga is a fairly easy to find constellation, if not terribly well-shaped.  (Is it really supposed to look like a charioteer?  Umm... okay.)  Anyway, within its boundaries lie three wonderful open cluster.  Arguably the best of these is Messier 37, a fairly young open star cluster of about 347 to 550 million years old, that exists around 1500 light years from Earth, and contains 500+ stars.  Although in small telescopes we cannot see all of the individual suns, we can see the collective light of all of them, along with a few of the brighter ones.  Here's how to do that.

Start by identifying Capella.  That's the brightest star in Auriga, and part of the bright "Winter Hexagon" of stars.  For those residing between 30 and 50 degrees north latitude, Capella often moves near overhead at some point during the night in winter.  It will be near, or just past that point around 8:00 pm (Standard Time).  Looking at the shape of Auriga, note the pentagon shape of its brightest stars.  Across the three that are closest to each other, look at the one that is opposite Capella.

How to find and identify the winter constellations

That's Theta Aurigae, a 2.7 magnitude star that should be visible from most areas, even light polluted ones, though you may have to look a bit more intently for it and block as much extraneous light as possible.  Using binoculars or a magnified finderscope, locate the three 4th magnitude stars just inside the pentagon from Theta.  These are Nu, Tau and Upsilon Aurigae, respectively.  From dark areas, they are visible naked eye; from most everywhere else, you'll need that magnification to see them, but they are easily spotted in most finderscopes 30mm or larger.  

How to understand the magnitudes of stars in the sky

Now use those three stars like a pointer.  From the base of that triangle to the top, that's about 2 degrees.  So all three stars are easily seen in one finderscope/binocular field.  Now move away from the apex of the triangle, in the direction it points.  You will need to move about twice as far as the triangle is high, so move a total of about 4 degrees.  You will pass a 6th magnitude star on the way, and the cluster is actually nestled within another triangle composed of 6th magnitude stars.  So you may not see the cluster in your finder, but the 6th magnitude stars should be observable to help you find your way.

How to measure distance in the sky

This the location of M37, and with a long focal length eyepiece in your telescope (assuming your finder and main scope are aligned), the cluster should be visible.  You may need to use averted vision to observe a bit more, but from most locations, the cluster should easily stand out from the background stars.

BONUS FOR THIS WEEK!  The asteroid Ceres happens to be very close to the bright star Alnath near the base of Auriga - there's a finder chart for Ceres here.

How to find M37 in Auriga

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The Nightlight

This blog includes what to see in the night and daytime skies, thoughts on telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy observing accessories and equipment, plus my own occasional notes on objects I've seen and observed. Oh, and the random theater or other "my take on life" post. In other words, there is always something interesting. Check it out.