The celestial charioteer drives high across the sky on December nights. The constellation Auriga is low in the northeast at nightfall, but passes directly overhead by around midnight.
The charioteer’s brightest stars form a pentagon. The most prominent member of the figure is Capella, one of the brightest stars in all the night sky. The second-brightest member of the figure is Al Nath, to the lower right of Capella during the early evening. It’s actually shared with the neighboring constellation Taurus. In fact, it represents the tip of one of bull’s horns.
And number three on the list is Menkalinan — the charioteer’s shoulder — which is below Capella.
Although it looks like a single point of light, Menkalinan’s actually a binary — two almost-identical twins locked in a tight orbit around each other.
Each of the stars of Menkalinan is a good bit bigger, hotter, and brighter than the Sun. And they’re separated by just a few million miles — a small fraction of the distance from Earth to the Sun.
Passing between the two stars would be like passing through the flame of a blowtorch. Not only do the stars put out a lot of heat and visible light, they also produce a lot of ultraviolet light. So any icy comets that tried to shoot the gap between them would be vaporized, and rocky asteroids wouldn’t fare much better. It’s a pair of stars that’s best appreciated from afar — like the surface of Earth on a chilly late-autumn night.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.