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April 15, 2024

Backyard Astronomy: Orion (2003-12-13)

By Cheryl Haimann

The Big Dipper may be the best-known star pattern, but winter's most recognizable constellation is right behind it in popularity. Orion dominates the sky with its large size, bright stars, and recognizable shape.

Orion Orion, son of Neptune, was a handsome and skilled hunter, and a perfect example of how good looks and talent do not necessarily keep you out of trouble. It will come as no surprise that many of his troubles arose from romantic entanglements. A few weeks ago, we heard his name in connection with the Pleiades. This Hefner of the gods tried to score with seven sisters at once, and at the urging of Artemis (Diana), Zeus turned them into birds to allow them to escape.

That wasn't his only bout of girl trouble. He also fell in love with Merope, and her father agreed to allow their marriage if Orion first rid their island of wild animals. He did so, but Dad Oenopion drug his feet about handing over his daughter. Some say it was because Orion had tried to take Merope by force, while others suggest that Dad had an immoderate interest of his own in the young lady. At any rate, the father solved the problem by poking out Orion's eyes and forcing him to wander about, blind, until his sight could be restored by sun god Helios.

But wait, there's more! Moon goddess Artemis had more than just the honor of the Seven Sisters in mind when she put them out of Orion's reach. It turns out she was also pining for the big guy and dreaming of hunting side by side with him. Her brother Apollo, though, saw Orion for the rascal he was. He arranged to have the scorpion, Scorpius, pursue Orion, in hopes of keeping him away from Artemis. Apollo finally hit the jackpot when he recognized Orion swimming far in the distance and challenged the goddess of the hunt to prove her skill. Artemis shot and scored, not knowing what her target had been until Orion's lifeless body washed ashore. Distraught when she realized what she had done, Artemis put his image in the sky.

In December, Orion rises in the east-southeast, just below Taurus, by about 8:00 PM. The most distinctive feature is the belt, three stars in a short, straight line. As Orion rises, he is lying on his side, and the belt is perpendicular to the horizon. As Orion moves across the southern sky, he will turn upright. The belt stars are close enough together that all three can be seen together in 8x50 binoculars.

There are bright 1st magnitude stars on either side of the belt. On the left is reddish Betelgeuse (BET-el-jooze), Arabic for "armpit." To the right is bluish Rigel (RYE-jel), meaning foot. The other shoulder and leg stars, as well as the three belt stars, are all approximately 2nd magnitude, make the body, almost 20 degrees long, quite easy to recognize, as well as the brightest constellation in the sky. Dimmer stars form a tiny head, a club held overhead, a pelt or shield held in front of the body, and a sword suspended from the belt.

That sword contains one of the marvelous wonders of the night sky, the Orion (or Great) Nebula, M42. Look for a hazy spot in the middle of the sword. Binoculars will show more distinction, and small telescopes will show four stars, called the Trapezium, in the middle of the nebula, as well as a smaller companion nebula, M43. This nebula is called a "star nursery" because stars are being born there. Gas and dust collapse until they are dense enough to start a fusion reaction.

Weekly special: The Geminid meteor shower peaks on Saturday, December 14. The best time to see meteors is just after sundown, before the gibbous moon rises. Look northeast, or to the left of Orion. To the left of Betelgeuse in this area, about as far away as Rigel is to the right, is Saturn. The ringed planet will be dominant in the night sky throughout the winter.
Article © Cheryl Haimann. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-12-13
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