Orion the Hunter is back in the early night sky, heralding the approach of winter and the Christmas season. Orion is one of the most recognizable constellations and, like most visible stars and star groups, takes its name from Greek mythology.
I’ve been watching Orion and the Pleiades the last few weeks, and more recently I’ve noticed the sky’s brightest star lying low in the southeast at the end of the evening. The night sky was crystal clear on Nov. 12, and Sirius’ twinkling brightness amazed me. Sirius shone quite clearly as I walked around our allotment, passing street lights, and shone even brighter when viewed from our back yard. While looking at Sirius, I noticed Orion’s sword dangling from his belt, piquing my curiosity about the constellation in general.
I learned many years ago that the best way to learn the night sky is to view it with the naked eye rather than magnified. Learning the constellations and the movement of stars and planets across the heavens during the march of the seasons is the best way to find a specific object, because star guides pinpoint objects in reference to constellations and other objects. Before you look through binoculars and telescopes, get to know the grand dome of the sky.
Orion the Hunter was a young man of gigantic stature and great beauty, says Edith Hamilton in “Mythology.” He fell in love with the daughter of the king of Chios and was granted permission to marry her. He kept delaying the marriage and one day insulted the girl, who is sometimes called Aero and sometimes Merope. King Oenopion asked Dionysus to punish Orion, so the god put him into a deep sleep and Oenopion blinded him. Orion recovered his sight by gazing on the rising sun in the east, at Lemnos, on the advice of an oracle, returned to take vengeance on the king but the king had fled, and lived on Crete as Artemis’ huntsman. Stories about his death differ, and after his death he was placed in the sky as a constellation with a girdle, sword, club and lion’s skin. His shield faces Taurus the Bull to the upper right, and below him is Canis Major, the big dog, and following him is Canis Minor, the little dog.
Another story says that Orion pursued the seven Pleiades, the daughters of Atlas, but could never catch them. Pitying them, Zeus placed then in the heavens as stars, says Hamilton. Even in the sky, Orion continues his relentless pursuit, following them across the canopy of the autumn and winter sky every night. The Pleiades, an open cluster of more than 100 stars, rise by late summer and are high in the sky at midnight in early autumn, with Orion following. Most people can see six of the seven sisters, and all seven are clearly seen with binoculars.
Orion is easy to spot because the three stars composing his belt are in a short straight line. Two stars mark his shoulders and two his legs. The reddish star Betelgeuse marks the left shoulder from our viewpoint, and the bluish star Rigel marks the right heel. Orion’s sword hangs from his belt, and part of the sword is the Orion Nebula, a cloud of gas and dust where new stars are forming. The Horsehead Nebula descends from zeta Orionis, the left-hand star in the belt. Dark dust in front of light from behind forms the shape of a horse head, which requires strong magnification to view. It is quite impressive in photographs. Between the top of the shield and the Pleiades is a V-shaped pattern called the Hyades that forms the head of Taurus. Closest to the shield is the red star Aldebaran, and the Pleiades ride on Taurus’ shoulder.
Orion’s belt points southeast to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius is bluish-white and clearly twinkles, making you wonder if you’re seeing a UFO or a star about to explode, and it can look especially mysterious when shining through a thin layer of clouds. Through my binoculars, which were hard to keep steady, Sirius seemed to change colors from blue to red, but it was hard to tell.
The night sky takes on a spiritual meaning for me. I feel connected to the ancient peoples who viewed these same stars, planets, and constellations, although I envy their clearer and darker sky, and I feel a sense of wonder that I am looking across thousands of light years of space and time.
See http://www.atlasoftheuniverse.com/nebulae/m42.html to see the Orion Nebula.
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