As we move into the mid-winter season, there are quite a few deep sky objects that are ready to view right when it gets dark. By finding the prominent constellation Auriga in the northern part of the sky, there are 3 easy-to-find open star clusters to aim your telescopes at. These clusters are fairly dense, containing more than 50 stars each, and are very gorgeous to look at. This is a good time of year to view them, as they are out in the early evening, and they are high in the sky. That helps cut down on atmospheric distortions on the horizon. Let’s take a look at them!
First up is the M36 cluster. M36 is located in near the western edge of Auriga, almost between the two stars forming the edge of the pentagon opposite of the very bright star Capella. This cluster is relatively bright and can be spotted with binoculars, and even the finder scope of your telescope. M36 is over 4,000 light years away, and contains several dozen stars packed into a 14 light year radius. It is quite small in binoculars, but a telescope with 30x-40x magnification will allow you to see the individual stars of this cluster. See how many you can count when you spot this beauty!
The M37 cluster is the most dense and brightest star cluster of the 3 contained in Auriga. It’s also my personal favorite of the 3 as well. Located nearly due east of M36, this cluster can also be seen in binoculars and your telescope’s finding scope. It’s location in the sky is directly opposite of the center of the Milky Way. M37 contains over 500 stars, over 100 of which are visible with a small telescope. It lies around 4,500 light years away, and is around 20-25 light years across. M37 holds up well to high magnification, so start small, perhaps 30x to 40x, then work your way up to 100x. It will give you a good view of this pretty cluster, and will allow you to see the myriad of stars contained within.
Lastly, there’s the M38 open cluster. M38 is located due west of M36. It is slightly dimmer than the other two clusters of the group, but still can be seen with binoculars and finder scopes. M38 has a more circular appearance to the eye than in photos. It lies around 4,200 light years away, and is around 20 light years across. While not as dense as M37, there are still several dozen visible stars in the cluster. See how many you can count!
Finding Auriga and the 3 open star clusters is a good, easy test for beginners, and doesn’t require a large telescope or high magnification levels to enjoy! Since Auriga is overhead after sunset, you won’t need to freeze during the wee hours of the night to be able to enjoy viewing the star clusters. And, as a bonus, the clusters themselves are pretty bright, so slight light pollution or moonlight won’t take too much away from your view. Be sure to check these open star clusters out, and enjoy the view!
Don’t forget to share us with your stargazing friends on Facebook and Twitter!