Celestial News: Catch Orion rising
You know, Orion always comes up sideways,
Throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
And, rising on his hands, he looks in on me …
This excerpt from Robert Frost’s poem titled “The Star Splitter” captures in words one of my favorite celestial events: the rising of the magnificent constellation of Orion the Hunter.
You should look up and read this delightful poem in its entirety. All of a sudden, after changing from Daylight Saving Time to Standard Time at the beginning of November, Orion is rising in the early evening before most of us go to bed. You can catch him throwing his leg up over our fence of mountains in the eastern sky about 7:45 p.m. in late November and early December.
Orion is one of only two constellations visible from Colorado that contain two first magnitude stars. Ruddy Betelgeuse marks his shoulder, and icy-blue Rigel marks his foot. Both stars pop up over the mountains about the same time, followed immediately by the three stars of Orion’s Belt, Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka.
The three belt-stars rise in a vertical column, halfway between Betelgeuse and Rigel, almost like one of Orion’s arrows shot straight up from below the horizon.
Hanging from Orion’s Belt is his sword, composed of a fainter triplet of stars. Take a close look at the middle star in the sword (not the belt). Even to the naked eye, the middle star in the sword looks fuzzy.
This is the Great Orion Nebula, also known by its Messier catalog number, M42. Aim your binoculars or telescope at Orion’s sword for a closer view of one of the largest glowing hydrogen gas clouds in the galaxy. The Hubble Space Telescope has revealed dozens of new solar systems forming in this stellar nursery, nearly 1,500 light years from Earth.
Greek mythology tells us that the great hunter Orion once boasted that he could kill every living creature on Earth, if he wanted to. The animals of the forest got together and decided they must make a preemptive strike, in case Orion was serious. They chose one of their smallest members, the scorpion, to teach Orion a deadly lesson.
Stalking the hunter one day in the woods, the scorpion stung Orion on the heel. The great hunter wheeled around in pain and collapsed from the scorpion’s fatal poison. Zeus immortalized both the scorpion and the hunter in the stars as our constellations of Scorpius and Orion, but they were placed on opposite sides of the sky so that the two mortal enemies could never be seen at the same time.
Orion shines high in the mid-winter sky, and Scorpius twinkles low in our mid-summer sky.
When you first see Orion rising in the early evening, you can be certain that the winter snows are not far behind.
Welcome back, old friend.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Steamboat Springs Campus. His “Celestial News” column appears weekly in Steamboat Today. Check out Westlake’s new “2017 Cosmic Calendar” of sky events on his website at jwestlake.com. It features 12 of his best astro-photos and a day-by day listing of cool celestial events you and your family can enjoy watching all year.
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