Celestial News: It’s Orion Time | SteamboatToday.com

Celestial News: It’s Orion Time

Jimmy Westlake
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
February is the best month to explore the constellation Orion, the Hunter, high up in the sky during the early evening hours. Orion has much to offer to the unaided eye, like his two stellar gems Rigel and Betelgeuse and, of course, his star-studded belt. Aim a telescope at the stars in Orion’s sword to see the magnificent Great Orion Nebula, also known as M42.
Jimmy Westlake/Courtesy photo

What’s your favorite constellation? The winter constellation of Orion, the Hunter, tops many people’s list.

February is Orion time, when the constellation shines high during the early evening hours. You can see him in the southeastern sky, already well up as darkness falls.

There are two main reasons Orion is so prominent in our sky. One reason is because Orion contains two of the brightest stars visible from Earth — Rigel and Betelgeuse. The second reason is because of the three prominent stars in a row that mark Orion’s Belt.

Rigel (rye-jel) is the seventh brightest star in the sky, even though it lies at the tremendous distance of 800 light-years. It shines with the intensity of nearly 40,000 suns. Place Rigel in the sun’s position, and the earth would be roasted out of existence. Rigel marks one of the Hunter’s feet, while the fainter star Saiph (safe) marks the other.

Betelgeuse (beetle-juice) marks one of Orion’s shoulders and is about 500 light-years distant. Its name derives from the Arabic words meaning “the armpit of the giant” and its ruddy orange color offers a beautiful contrast to Rigel’s icy blue hue.

Betelgeuse is a variable star that occasionally outshines Rigel. It oscillates between being the sixth brightest star and the 12th brightest star over a period of roughly 400 days. Orion’s other shoulder is marked by a fainter star, Bellatrix (bell-a-trix).

The three eye-catching stars that adorn Orion’s belt are, from left to right, Alnitak (“the Girdle”), Alnilam (“the String of Pearls”) and Mintaka (“the Belt”). There is not another triplet of stars quite like it anywhere in the sky. Some other common names for Orion’s Belt include the Three Kings, the Three Sisters, and the Three Stars.

Our Greek legend of Orion dates back over 3,000 years. He was considered the greatest hunter who ever lived, but he had one personality problem — he was a braggart.

One day, he boasted that he could kill every animal on Earth if he wanted to. The animals overheard Orion say this, so they planned a preemptive first strike. They chose one of their smallest members, the deadly scorpion, to teach Orion a lethal lesson.

The scorpion stung Orion on the heel and the mighty hunter fell dead to the ground. The great witch doctor Aesculapius administered a magic herb and brought Orion back to life. Orion promised that he would never, ever boast again. Zeus placed Orion in the winter sky for all to see while the Scorpion he placed in the summer sky. That way, the two mortal enemies could never be in the sky at the same time.

The telescopic showpiece of Orion is the Great Nebula, which is visible to the unaided eye as a small fuzzy patch in Orion’s Sword. Binoculars show a glowing cloud, but a telescope reveals a magnificent mass of fluorescing gas, energized by a small cluster of hot stars at its heart.

The tiny star cluster, born from the nebular gas it illuminates, is called the Trapezium. The colors of the Orion Nebula are spectacular, but they are not easily detectable to the human eye. Long exposure telescopic photographs are necessary to bring out these details. The Orion Nebula, also known by its catalog number M42, is estimated to be over 1,300 light years from Earth.

Follow the line of Orion’s Belt to the lower left and you will find the sky’s brightest star, Sirius, the Dog Star. Follow the line to the upper right and you will find the bright star Aldebaran and, beyond, the Pleiades star cluster.

Jimmy Westlake is adjunct Professor of Physical Sciences at Colorado Mountain College and former Director of the Rollins Planetarium at Young Harris College in Georgia and the St. Charles Parish Library Planetarium, in Luling, Louisiana. His “Celestial News” column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today newspaper. Check out Jimmy’s astrophotography website at http://www.jwestlake.com.

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