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The Great Goat Hauler of the Night Sky!

Something you don’t see all the time, at least around this part of the world, is a retired ace chariot driver schlepping around with a mama goat slung over one of his shoulders and kid goats in the crook of his elbow. But you can see that in the night sky. It's the constellation Auriga the Charioteer. In fact, it is one of the prime winter time constellations.

As I've said many times before, many of the constellations just don't resemble what they're supposed to be. Cultures from the past all over the world used these dot-to-dot or star-to-star "pictures" as rough visual aids to help tell their particular legends or mythological stories. Imaginations must have been extremely healthy back then! Most of the constellation stories in the western hemisphere originate from Greek and Roman mythology.

In the case of Auriga, though, there must have been an outdoor party with strong libations when this constellation was created. Otherwise how could you make a constellation that resembles a lopsided pentagon into a retired chariot driver turned goat farmer?

In the early evening this time of year Auriga is perched high in the southern sky and is a prominent member of the gang of bright winter constellations I call “Orion and his gang”. Look for the lopsided pentagon just above the mighty constellation Orion the Hunter that resembles a giant hourglass, and according to Greek and Roman mythology outlines the torso of a mighty hermit hunter. Three equally spaced bright stars in a perfect line denote Orion's belt.

As it turns out, this week you can also use the waxing gibbous moon, on its way to being full next weekend. Early this week the moon will migrating from night to night toward the east, passing just below Auriga.

The brightest star in Auriga is on the upper left hand corner of the pentagon. That's Capella, which is also one of the brightest stars in the night sky we see through the course of the year. In fact, it's the fourth brightest star we can see in our night sky. It's a little over 42 light years away, with just one light year equaling almost six trillion miles. Capella is actually not one, but two stars orbiting each other, separated by about a hundred million miles. There's no way we can see that with even a large amateur telescope. The two Capella stars are both super large versions of our home star the sun. They're both close to ten million miles in diameter. Our own sun is not even one million miles in girth.

According to one of the Greek legends, King Oenomaus was the ruthless ruler of a mighty kingdom. He had a beautiful daughter, Hippodameia, who had many suitors who wished to marry her. King Oenomaus didn’t think any young man was worthy of her. Anybody who even tried met their death! What a sweet king! He didn't just send them to the gallows, though, but rather he challenged all one by one to a chariot race. King Oenomaus was an excellent charioteer. If any young suitor made it to the finish line ahead of him that young man would win the hand of his daughter. But, if the suitor lost the race he would be killed by slow torture. Being that Oenomaus had the fastest horses in the land, he routinely out-raced every young man who tried and did in them in afterward.

One day though, Pelops, son of Hermes, the messenger of the gods came to chariot race for the hand of Hippodameia, and he got some extra divine help from the other gods. They were sick of the king's slaughter! They provided a chariot to Pelops that would sprout golden wings to insure victory. As added insurance Pelops also paid off Oenomaus’s chariot mechanic Myrtilus to betray the king. Myrtilus replaced the lynchpins of the king’s chariot wheels with copies made of wax. In return for his betrayal, Pelops promised half the kingdom to Myrtilus after the king lost the race and was killed.

When the race began Oenomaus was neck and neck with Pelops, but about halfway to the finish line the golden wings popped out of the crooked suitor’s chariot. The king was left in a cloud of dust. Oenomaus then cracked his mighty whip commanding his horses to go faster. At that very moment the wheels flew off and Oenomaus was dragged to his death!

Pelops proceeded to marry Hippodameia and live happily ever after with the Queen of the kingdom. Myrtilus was happy for the new couple, but he still wanted his half of the kingdom and Pelops was welching! Myrtilus confronted Pelops, demanding his share, but crooked Pelops stalled him, claiming that his lawyers were drawing up all the papers that would be ready in a few days. Myrtilus was satisfied with this explanation and started walking off. Just as he did, Pelops, with his inherited godly powers, kicked Myrtilus so hard in the derriere that he went flying into the heavens and magically became the constellation we know today as Auriga.

No one knows exactly how the betraying chariot driver got the mama goat and baby goats on his shoulder, but the leading theory is that shepherds added them as they watched their flocks by night.

Again, look for Auriga the charioteer turned goat farmer nearly overhead above the constellation Orion. By the way, bright star Capella marks where the mama goat is. See if you can spot the dim triangle of stars that make the baby goats right next to Capella. Go figure!