Four out of the five brightest stars we can see are now readily visible in the celestial dome. Of course, the sun is our brightest and closest star. Once the sun has finally set on these early June evenings, the next brightest “star” to pop out is Venus in the Pottsville northwest sky. It doesn’t count, though, because it’s not a star — it’s a planet. The next brightest actual star is Arcturus, lighting up the southern sky, and next in line is Vega, showing off its brilliance in the high eastern sky.
Capella is the fifth brightest star we can see from our planet. Look for it as soon as you can in the low northwestern sky, poking out of the evening twilight. Don’t wait too long to look for Capella, though, because it slips below the horizon shortly after 11 p.m. Even though it’s only in fifth place in stellar brightness, Capella’s claim to fame is that it’s the brightest nighttime star that we see most often in our northern hemisphere.
Capella can make that claim because it’s the nearest, brightest star to Polaris, the North Star. Polaris marks the position of the north celestial pole. Every celestial object we see in the sky, day or night, whether it’s the sun, the moon, planets or stars, all appear to rotate around the North Star Polaris once every 24 hours. Polaris is the “lynchpin” (sorry) of the sky because it shines directly above the Earth’s terrestrial North Pole.
If we lived at the North Pole, the North Star would be directly overhead, and everything in the celestial dome would pivot around the overhead North Star every 24 hours. In Pottsville, we live a little less then halfway between the North Pole and the Earth’s equator, so in our sky Polaris is permanently fixed about halfway between the northern horizon and the overhead zenith.
Stars close to Polaris in the sky, like those that make up the Big and Little Dippers and the W-shaped constellation Cassiopeia, are so close to the north celestial pole that they’re always above the horizon, moving in a tight circle around the North Star. They are called circumpolar stars, and we see them night after night.
Capella is not quite close enough to Polaris to be considered a circumpolar star, but it’s close! Because of its northward position, Capella can be seen in our evening skies from late August to mid-June. Throughout the year, it never goes an entire night without making at least a brief appearance!
According to Greek mythology, Capella is known as the “goat star.” That’s because it’s the brightest star in the constellation Auriga the Charioteer. The constellation Auriga basically resembles a lopsided pentagon that’s supposed to be a retired chariot driver turned goat farmer, with a mama goat on his shoulder and baby goats in the crook of his elbow. How you get all of that out of a lopsided pentagon is beyond me. There must have been quite a party when that constellation was conjured up! Capella is supposed to mark the position where the mama goat is sitting on the chariot driver’s shoulder, and that’s why it’s known as the goat star.
Unfortunately, all we can see of the constellation Auriga is Capella. By early August, though, the lopsided pentagon will be available for very early morning viewing in the pre-twilight northeast sky. Until then, all we have is Capella, or what I like to call the “Old Faithful” of nighttime stars!
Lynch, an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.