Look Up Column: Having fun with Orion, the Hunter – Way of life – The St John Information-File
The banner constellation of the winter evenings in the northern hemisphere is certainly Orion. The pattern, dominated by bright stars and three in a neat row right in the middle, is unmistakable.
Orion and the Big Dipper are certainly the most famous star patterns north of the equator (the Big Dipper is the brightest part of a larger constellation, Ursa Major the Big Bear).
In mid-January in the evening around 10 p.m. Orion is highest in the south. The Big Dipper is directly across from the north and at this hour and time of year seems to be balancing on its “handle” with “bowl” stars on top.
Orion has certainly been celebrated and admired since someone looked at the night sky thousands of years ago.
The ancient Greeks called Orion “the hunter”.
I like to look back in history (and look up).
Garrett P. Service described Orion in his 1908 book “Astronomy with the naked eye”. He described the balance and color contrast between the two stars of the first size of the figure, the gleaming white Rigel at the bottom right and the fiery red-orange Betelgeuse at the top left, with the breathtaking triad, the “Belt of Orion”, at an angle exactly in between tipped. Betelgeuse and Orion are each about 10 degrees from the central belt stars.
“Their wonderful color contrast and the dazzling beauty of the stars in the belt, which lie in an almost straight line and are perfectly matched in size and color as selected gemstones, give this constellation the appearance of a gigantic piece of jewelry,” wrote Serviss. “There is nothing else in the sky that matches its magnificence.”
Orion is at least partially visible to all on earth. The celestial equator runs right through the belt. Orion is walking right over us from the equatorial region of the earth. Someone at the North Pole would only see the upper (northern) half of Orion as the celestial equator follows the horizon between the icebergs; The North Star is almost above us and the night burns constantly with Northern Lights.
From the South Pole, the southern half of Orion appears above the frozen horizon.
Betelgeuse, a red giant star, fluctuates irregularly in brightness. You may remember last winter when night sky watchers and astronomers in general were amazed that Betelgeuse experienced an unusual decrease in brightness that rivaled the Belt Stars and the other two corner stars in Orion, which shine at about +2 magnitudes. Betelgeuse stayed that way for months; It was a relief to see it regained its fame. The suspected cause of the dimming was a cloud of dust expelled from Betelgeuse and temporarily obscuring part of its light.
Note the star sequence that forms a line under the three belt stars on the left. This is “Orion’s Sword”.
On closer inspection, you should be able to see that the center star in the sword is clearly out of focus. Binoculars will make this clear. You will see the “Great Nebula of Orion” referred to as M42.
Astronomers point out that this is a scene where new stars are formed from cosmic dust and gas. In a sense, we can call it an “excellent kindergarten”. There are many examples of these nebulae in the sky; M42 is the brightest.
For example, a telescope with an aperture of 6 to 10 inches brings out incredible details on a dark, clear night. Even a small telescope with a 3-inch mirror or lens shows the famous “trapezoid”, a collection of four dark stars packed tightly together like a small (imperfect) square embedded in the Great Nebula.
While there is virtually no end to what you can explore with a telescope, this column emphasizes that none are really needed to appreciate the stars and other wonders of the universe that open up to us every clear night. Orion was enjoyed for thousands of years before Galileo first rotated a telescope this way in the early 17th century.
Betelgeuse and Rigel mark opposite corners of a tall rectangle. The corner star to the right of Betelgeuse is called Bellatrix. These can be imagined as Orion’s shoulders.
The corner star to the left of Rigel is Saiph; These two mark Orion’s feet.
The belt stars from the top right are Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnita.
Forming a triangle with Betelgeuse and Bellatrix in the middle and above a connecting line is a dark group of three stars, the brightest of which is called Meissa. This is represented as the “head”.
A long line of rather faint stars to the right of Bellatrix neatly marks the hunter’s catch, a lion’s skin held up like a shield.
At the top left in Betelgeuse is a group of dark stars that outline the hunter’s “club”.
A common lookup is the star map available online through Pachamamatrust.org. These diagrams bring back special personal memories, such as those that appeared in a small pocket-sized book called Stars that is part of the classic Golden Nature Guide, first published in 1951. “Stars” was written by Herbert S. Zim, Ph.D. and Robert H. Baker, Ph.D., D.Sc., and illustrated by James Gordon Irving.
This was one of the books that inspired me to appreciate the night sky as a teenager when Apollo astronauts prepared to go to the moon.
Orion has always drawn our imaginations and attention to the beauty of creation of which we belong.
The moon in the first quarter is on January 20th.
Keep looking to the sky!
Peter Becker is the Editor-in-Chief at The News Eagle in Hawley, Pennsylvania. Notes are welcome at [email protected] Please indicate in which newspaper or on which website you read this column.