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All around Auriga

Map 5: North Equatorial 2
Perseus to Cancer
m36_noao_250
Open star cluster M36 is located in the constellation Auriga.
NOAO/AURA/NSF
Late fall and early winter evenings in the Northern Hemisphere offer three constellations with a wide range of deep-sky objects: Auriga, Taurus, and Gemini. The Milky Way's rich star clouds pass right through Auriga and Gemini and skirt Taurus' eastern edge.

Charles Messier cataloged three objects in Auriga — all open clusters — and they're arranged in a line that runs parallel to the Milky Way. The westernmost is M38, which measures 20' across and shines at magnitude 6.4. Through an 8-inch scope, you'll be able to see more than 100 stars. Another open cluster, magnitude 8.2 NGC 1907, lies ½° south of M38 and forms a pair with it that's somewhat reminiscent of the Double Cluster in Perseus (see Map 4).

M36, at magnitude 6.0, and M37, which shines at magnitude 5.6, complete the triumvirate. You can see all three clusters with your naked eyes from a dark site. Through a telescope, M38 and M36 are excellent targets, but M37 truly is spectacular. A small scope reveals 50 stars in an area 10' across. Through a 12-inch scope, you'll see several hundred stars filling the field of view of a medium-power eyepiece.

Many deep-sky objects in Taurus require at least an 8-inch telescope for you to appreciate them. The exceptions are Taurus' two Messier targets, the Pleiades (M45) and the Crab Nebula (M1). The Crab Nebula is the best-known supernova remnant in the sky. Find it 1° northwest of 3rd-magnitude Zeta Tauri. Measuring 6' by 4', M1 looks like a notched puff of smoke through small telescopes.

Gemini the Twins contains only one Messier object, magnitude 5.1 M35. This open cluster's central 20' contains more than 150 stars, and, nearby, a surprise: a smaller, more condensed star cluster, NGC 2158. You'll need to use high magnification in a large scope to break this magnitude 8.6 object into individual stars.

An easy-to-spot planetary nebula in this region is the Eskimo Nebula (NGC 2392), also called the Clown-Face Nebula. Shining at magnitude 9.1, this planetary has a double-shell appearance visible in 8-inch and larger telescopes. NGC 2392 measures roughly 1' across.

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