Domination is the best way to describe the role of Orion the Hunter in the winter heavens. Out of the nearly seventy constellations we can see from Minnesota and Wisconsin over the course of the year, itís the big guy, the godfather! I know youíve seen it even if you didnít know what you were looking at. In fact, itís probably the most recognized constellation in the sky.
If you were to walk down the street and randomly ask somebody to name a constellation, chances are theyíll pretend not to hear you, or give you ďthe lookĒ. If they do acknowledge you theyíll probably say the Big Dipper. The problem is that the Big Dipper is technically not a constellation. Itís actually the tail and the derriere of the constellation Ursa Major, otherwise known as the Big Bear.
A few folks might mention Orion as a constellation, and for sure that is a complete constellation. Even if you havenít paid all that much attention to the winter night sky I know youíve seen Orion. At first glance it reminds you of an hourglass with the neck made up of a short straight line of three bright stars.
According to Greek and Roman mythology, the three stars in a row make up the belt of the hermit hunter and the hourglass is the outline of Orionís torso. This time of year my favorite constellation, my celestial buddy, starts out in the southeastern sky after evening twilight and stalks his way westward through the rest of the night. By around 4am Orion slips below the western horizon. Itís appropriate that we see Orion during most of these long winter nights because, according to mythology, he was a half god half mortal who slept by day and hunted by night.
Astronomically, Orion is legendary because of its numerous celestial treasures. Itís the home of many bright stars, star clusters, and nebula. Its hallmark is that perfect line of three stars in a diagonal row that make up the hunterís belt. Nowhere else in the sky will you find anything like it. From the lower left to the upper right the stars are Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. Whatís amazing is that while these stars are so perfectly lined up, they physically have nothing to do with each other; in fact, theyíre nowhere near other. By an incredible astronomical coincidence they just happen to be in the same line of sight. Alnitak is 800 light-years from Earth. Alnilam is about 1300 light years away, and Mintaka is nearly 690 light years away from our cold backyards. They are physically different from each other as well. Alnitak and Mintaka are actually both multiple star systems with Mintaka made up of at least five stars revolving around each other.
Orionís brightest star, Rigel, resides on the hunterís left knee and is a bright blue giant star more than 770 light years away. Itís believed to be a very young star, possibly only ten million years old or so. Our own sun is thought to have been around for about six billion years. Itís much larger and more powerful than our home star, almost 100 times larger than our sun and possibly more than a hundred thousand times as luminous!
The second brightest star has one of the best star names in the sky, Betelgeuse, pronounced by most as ďbeetle-juice.Ē It shines in Orionís armpit. In fact, Betelgeuse is an Arabic name which means ďarmpit of the mighty oneĒ. Even with the naked eye, you can see that Betelgeuse is a red giant star. Itís actually a giant among giants, possibly over a billion miles in diameter or more. Itís the biggest single thing you can see from Earth with the naked eye! Betelgeuse is also nearing the end of its life. Sometime between now and the next million years, Betelgeuse will explode in a tremendous supernova explosion. Here on the Earth, just over 600 light-years away, weíll be almost close enough to get some of the cosmic fallout. Just what we need, something more to worry about!
While Betelgeuse may be dying, thereís also new life in Orion. Look below Orionís belt for the three fainter stars that outline the hunterís sword. You canít help but notice that the middle star in the sword is fuzzy. Thatís because itís not a star but a nebulae, a 30 light-year wide cloud of hydrogen gas and dust almost 1500 light-years away. Itís more than 20 times the diameter of our solar system and within it, before our very eyes, stars are being born. Itís a stellar cosmic womb and nursery. All through our own galaxy and millions of other galaxies in our universe, stars form out of hydrogen nebulae. Because of gravity, globules of hydrogen begin to collapse, which creates compression. If itís massive enough, heat due to the compression will fire up nuclear fusion and presto, you have a star, shining brightly for billions of years. Nebula, depending on their size, can produce hundreds and hundreds of stars. The Orion Nebulae is so big it could produce over 10,000 new stars!
Using even a small telescope, maybe one you got for Christmas, you can see four new stars that have formed in the great nebulae of Orion. Itís called the Trapezium since the four stars are arranged in a tiny trapezoid-baseball diamond shape. These stars may be only 300,000 years old and are showing signs of developing new solar systems. In fact, itís debated that one of the stars may be less than 50,000 years old. Thereís a lot going on in that fuzzy little star below Orionís belt.
There are a lot of other celestial treasures in Orion like the Horse Head Nebula and the Running Man Nebula that require large telescopes and diligence to see, but they are well worth the effort!
While Orion the Hunter is certainly rich astronomically, the mythological legend of the mighty hunter is equally as rich. Many different cultures have their own story of this ancient constellation. My favorite tale evolves from Greek mythology and involves Artemis, the goddess of moon.
Orion was a big brawny man who lived for hunting and fishing. Like most of the critters and beasts he hunted, Orion was nocturnal. He stalked and hunted by night and slept under a giant tree by day. He was also a bit of a hermit who didnít like to mix with other people or the local conservation enforcement officers, who took exception with his nocturnal hunting practices. So he moved to a large but deserted island where he could hunt and fish unabated.
Orion was living his solitary dream! Every night he was out there slaying beasts of all kinds. Unbeknown to him, Orion also had a secret admirer. She was Artemis, the goddess of the moon. Just like a present day spy satellite, Artemis did aerial reconnaissance on Orion as she guided her magic moon chariot across the sky, pulled by flying horses. The more she spied on Orion the more she longed to be with the mighty hunter. Leaping down and hanging out was a risky proposition, though, that would get her in a lot of trouble with her father Zeus, the king of the gods. Not only would she be ignoring her duties as moon goddess, but she would also be mixing with a mortal and that was taboo!
So night after night she struggled, stranded in the sky with the moon and those silly flying horses, denied the pleasure of Orionís company. One night she just couldnít take it anymore! As Orion was cleaning up on a whole herd of wild boars, she yelled whoa to the horses and headed on down to Orionís island. Finally she met him eye-to-eye and toe-to-toe. As she hoped it was love at first sight. Orion quickly gave up on the hermit thing after one look at the goddess. Right away she changed out her royal robes and put on hunterís camouflage. She hunted with him the rest of the night, but when dawn approached she jumped back up to the moon chariot and raced it to the horizon. The next night she halted the moon in mid-sky again and joined her new love for another night of hunting, jumping back on her chariot at dawn.
This taboo love affair went on for some time. Orion and Artemis were very much in love but clearly Artemis was in the wrong! Eventually Zeus found out about his daughterís behavior from Apollo, the god of the sun and Artemisí brother. What a snitch! What a tattletale! Zeus had to stop this affair, but he didnít want to lose the love of his daughter. So the king of the gods came up with a plan. He had a hit put out on Orion. He wanted Orion killed but as much as possible he wanted it to look like an accident. Zeus arranged for a giant scorpion to be dropped on Orionís island and to fatally sting the hunter in his daytime slumber, killing off his daughterís elicit love interest!
The day of Orionís scorpion encounter arrived. As Orion slept off another night of successful hunting with Artemis, the scorpion crawled into his camp. Fortunately, Orion was just about to get up and make a visit to his outhouse. Orion had a couple of his homemade beers before he went to bed that had caught up with him. Orion bolted up as the scorpion attacked. What followed was a battle that went on for hours and hours. As evening set in the hunter had the scorpion in a headlock and had just about broken its neck. The scorpion, down to its last gasp, managed to break out of the hunterís hold and sting Orionís neck. In a few minutes it was all over for our hunter.
That night as Artemis was descending down from her moon cart she made the grizzly discovery that her boyfriend met his match. She looked around and saw the oversized and aggressive scorpion still in Orionís camp. Artemis put two and two together and took action. As the killer scorpion made its retreat, the moon goddess grabbed it by the tail and flung it so far into the sky that it became the constellation Scorpius the Scorpion. Artemis then returned to the slain Orion and wept over him for hours and hours. Finally she cradled his body into her arms and flew off to the sky. When she was high enough she gently tossed Orion a little higher in the sky, magically transforming him into a bright constellation. Artemis wanted her dearly departed partner in the sky with her.
She also made sure that Orion was on the opposite side of the sky from the scorpion that assassinated him. Thatís why we never see the constellations Orion and Scorpius in the sky at the same time. As soon as Orion rises in the east, the scorpion sets in the west and vice versa. Thatís also why Orion is a winter constellation and Scorpius rides the summer evening sky.
DIAGRAM: ORION THE HUNTER...Click