Celestial News: Orion and company
Winter is an excellent time to begin learning the constellations. The winter sky contains more bright stars and constellations than any other season of the year. Chances are, you’re already familiar with one or two of our winter star patterns by sight, but you might not know them by name.
The heart of the winter sky is arguably the most magnificent constellation in all the heavens, the great hunter, Orion. Three bright stars in a row mark Orion’s belt, and, above those, the stars Betelgeuse and Bellatrix twinkle at his shoulders. Beneath the belt stars, the stars Saiph and Rigel shine at Orion’s feet, giving the Hunter the overall shape of an hourglass.
Beginners often mistake the prominent triplet of stars in Orion’s belt, plus the three fainter ones below that mark his sword, for the Big Dipper. In fact, I was one of those beginners. I was probably 12 before I learned about the constellation Orion.
On every cold, winter night, the epic drama staring Orion plays out on the celestial stage. The mighty Hunter, with shield and club raised, is locked in fierce combat with Taurus the Bull, pushing him westward across the sky. The star-spangled face of Taurus is marked by the V-shaped Hyades star cluster and punctuated with the bright star Aldebaran, representing his glaring red eye.
The Pleiades star cluster, also called the Seven Sisters, lies on the Bull’s shoulder. Though it is shaped like a tiny little dipper, don’t mistake the Pleiades star cluster for the Little Dipper. It’s not. A line drawn through Orion’s Belt upwards will lead you to the Bull’s eye, Aldebaran, and the Pleiades star cluster beyond.
Barking at Orion’s heels is his faithful hunting dog, Canis Major, whose nose is marked by nothing less than the brightest star in the night, Sirius — also known by its nickname, the Dog Star.
A line drawn through Orion’s Belt downwards will always lead you to the Dog Star. Nearby, the little pup, Canis Minor, is yapping up a storm at the sight of the big bullfight.
Orion’s favorite animal to hunt was not the bull but the rabbit, and all the commotion has flushed Lepus the rabbit from the grass at Orion’s feet. Off he goes, scurrying into the night.
When we have friends like Orion and company looking down from above, one is never really alone while standing under the star-filled sky. Look for Orion and company high up in the southeastern sky about 9 p.m. in early January.
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, jwestlake.com. It features 12 of his best astro-photos and a day-by day listing of cool celestial events that you and your family can enjoy watching all year.
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