Step outside any time after 9 P.M. in January or February and it’s easy to spot Orion the Hunter, one of winter’s most easily recognizable constellations. Many of you can probably identify the Hunter’s Belt, those three-stars-in-a-row. But let’s find two even brighter stars of the Hunter (one red-orange and the other white-blue)!
Of the 88 constellations, most are incoherent, hallucinogenic smatterings. Orion is different. Along with the Big Dipper (best seen in the spring), Orion’s easily identified is often the first celestial pattern a child will notice, thanks to its Belt of three medium-bright stars in a row.
Orion the Hunter is Visible Everywhere
Orion floats in a very special space. Orion’s belt sits directly over Earth’s equator. Only stars in that location are seen by everyone, everywhere.
Conversely, a star located over one of the poles—the North Star, say—is forever hidden from people of the opposite hemisphere, blocked by Earth itself. From the US, Canada, and Europe, about a fourth of the sky never rises. Major luminaries forever concealed from our view include our companion galaxies (the Magellanic clouds) and the Southern Cross.
But Orion the Hunter, which straddles the equator like a diplomat, is visible around the world. A few thousand years ago, middle-eastern sky-watchers visualized those three stars as the waistline of a sheep. But in a wonderful, woolen, rags-to-riches story, Orion got promoted to human. That wasn’t enough to bring him good luck, and he was killed by a scorpion sting.
Orion is in our Milky Way Galaxy
All the stars in the Orion constellation and Orion’s belt are located in our own galaxy, the Milky Way! In fact, the spiral arm where are Sun is located is called “The Orion Arm” which gets its name from the constellation Orion the Hunter. That’s why we see so many bright objects within the constellation Orion. We are neighbors of a sort!
Finding Orion’s 5 Major Stars
Many of the Hunter’s stars share the same awesome thousand light-year distance, forming a lavish association of blue suns of arc-welder intensity. If you have binoculars, they’ll bring out their diamond blue-ness. Merely 1/1000th the age of our Sun, these infants were born together from an immense cloud of gas.
The Hunter’s stars rise in the early evening in the southeast; by 9 to 10 P.M. (local time), it will be high in the southwestern sky.
Start with the can’t-miss three stars of Orion’s Belt sitting at the Hunter’s waist. They’re medium-bright but distinctive because they make a short, straight row of evenly-spaced evenly-bright stars. These stars are named Alnilam, Mintaka and Alnitak.
From un-light-polluted regions, binoculars pointed at the belt would actually show more than three stars; they are immersed in a multitude of little stars like a swarm of fireflies. Away from city lights in rural areas, this faint cluster stands out with just the naked eye after your eyes get dark-adapted. If you see more than the three-start belt and see this faint cluster, you pass the dark sky’s “purity test.”
Red giant star Betelgeuse serves as Orion’s right shoulder (pronounced BET‘l’jooz). It always looks pumpkin-orange to me and very distinct from all the other stars in Orion which are blue. Betelgeuse is the largest star in all the heavens. If our Earth were represented by the period at the end of this sentence, Betelgeuse would be a ball as tall as a 20-story building.
Rigel, a blue supergiant star, is near Orion’s left knee. Orion’s brightest star, Rigel stands among the most luminous objects in the galaxy, shining with the light of 55,000 suns. If it were as nearby as Alpha Centauri, we could read by its light—and the night sky would be deep blue instead of black.
A Star Nursery
If you have binoculars handy, swing them below the leftmost belt star and you may see the “Sword” that hangs from the Hunter’s Belt. Do you see a fuzzy patch? That’s the Orion Nebula. This is the closest place to the Mall of America that newborn suns are being created. This stellar nursery of gas and dust is 1,500 light-years away and so large that our fastest rockets would need a half million years to cross it. The entire celestial womb glows like neon.
What to keep going? Follow Orion’s Belt down and leftward to the brightest star in all the heavens. This is the Dog Star Sirius.
What did it take, five minutes? And—without star charts—you’ve easily taken in some of the most famous objects in all the heavens. Orion will shine for many months to come!