Orion the Hunter is the king of the constellations as far as Iím concerned. Believe me, Iím far from the only one with that opinion. In the minds and imaginations of many, many stargazers all over the world, Orion is at the top of the constellation pyramid. Even if youíre not all that much into stargazing, you canít help but notice the mighty celestial hunter prowling westward across the winter heavens. Itís one of the few constellations that resembles what itís supposed to be. With just a passing glance you can easily see the torso of Orion with his broad shoulders and gigantic thighs. I have to be honest though, to me, Orion also resembles a giant hourglass orientated diagonally in the southeastern evening sky. Orion processes many, many astronomical treasures.
Armed with many layers of clothes, boots, and your warmest hat, you can brave the January cold. Something warm to sip on helps as well! If you can be out in the countryside, great, but even in suburban skies compromised with moderate light pollution youíre going to like what you see. Binoculars and or a small telescope are fun to have, but not absolutely required.
Orionís visual calling card is, without a doubt, his belt, made up of three bright stars close together in a darn near straight line. Even though the belt stars Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka look close together, they are physically nowhere near each other. Theyíre not only hundreds of light-years from Earth, but hundreds of light-years from each other. Call it a celestial coincidence or divine intervention that these stars line up as orderly as they do from our heavenly perch in our part of the vast Milky Way galaxy.
Below Orionís belt stars, there are three more stars in a short line that arenít quite as bright. That trio makes up Orionís sword, and without too much eyestrain you can see that the middle star is ďfuzzy.Ē Itís not a star. Itís a star factory, or nursery called the great Orion Nebula. Itís nearly 1600 light-years away with just one light-year equaling nearly six trillion miles! Itís a gigantic cloud of hydrogen gas and with a small telescope, or even a decent pair of binoculars, you can see a tiny cluster of four stars near the center. These infant stars were born gravitationally out of this giant mass of hydrogen gas during the last several million years, although one of the stars may be as young as 50,000 years old, which is exceptionally young when youíre talking stellar. The Hubble telescope has even detected what may be planets developing around the new stars.
The reason we see the Orion Nebula as well as we do is that itís being lit up like a neon light. The very young and extremely active stars hidden within the nebula are emitting so much intense radiation that the atomic structure of the surrounding gas is disrupted, causing it to glow brightly. We actually see just a small part of the Orion Nebula visually. Thereís a lot more to it that isnít glowing where thousands and thousands of stars are still forming within it.
Another one of Orionís celestial hallmarks is the bright star Betelgeuse in the upper left corner of the hunter. Like many stars, Betelgeuse has an Arabic name. Arabic culture in the Middle Ages and earlier cataloged the night sky, and many of those traditional star names are still in use today. What I love about the name Betelgeuse is that it roughly translates to English as ďarmpit of the great one.Ē As you can see in the diagram Betelgeuse actually marks the armpit of Orion.
Astronomically Betelgeuse is one of the single biggest things youíve ever seen. Itís considered a super red giant star. Even with the naked eye, you can detect its reddish hue. Betelgeuse fluctuates in diameter from about 400 million miles to nearly a billion miles in girth. Our home star the sun isnít even a million miles in diameter. Betelgeuse is almost 600 light-years from Earth, and is dying a slow death that someday will turn extremely violent! Presently itís using up all of the hydrogen and helium fuel in its core. When that happens to extremely massive stars like Betelgeuse they become extremely unstable, and eventually, the star explodes spectacularly! Astronomers called it a supernova explosion. Many astronomers think this could happen to Betelgeuse within a million years, maybe even next week. I wouldnít wait up for it outside in your lawn chair this time of year though; you could turn into a popsicle!
Thereís a lot more astronomical treasure in the constellation Orion, but its belt, the Orion Nebula, and Betelgeuse are the big three. What I also love about Orion are all of the other bright stars and constellations that surround the great heavenly hunter. I like to call this part of the sky ďOrion and his gang.Ē I love this part of the night sky, and I know youíll fall in love with it too.
There are so many legends and mythological tales with the Orion. Thatís because itís visible in the sky virtually all over the world, an imposing figure marauding across the sky with its posse of bright winter constellations, what I call ďOrion and his Gang.Ē When we first see him in the late fall evenings rising on his side, he appears to be extra gigantic. Thatís an illusion because just like the sun and the moon, constellations appear larger when they are closer to the horizon. The illusion happens because our eyes are comparing them in size with adjacent land objects.
Just about every ancient and not so ancient culture has Orion touted as a significant character in the nightly celestial theater. Heís even mentioned three times in the Bible ó twice in the book of Job and once in the book of Amos.
Many ancient cultures associated the giant frame of Orion with the sun, because just about all giants and heroes were associated with sun gods, either directly or indirectly. That was the case with the Egyptians, Phoenicians, and many other peoples. In the land of ancient Sumeria, which was about where present-day Iraq is now, the constellation we see as Orion was known as Uru-anna, the Light of Heaven. Some of these ancient stories of the constellation we know involving Orion involve cannibalism, as the giant figure among the stars grew as bright as he is because he literally fed off a menu of minor gods that added to his brilliance.
Most of the best-known tales of Orion, at least in this hemisphere, involve Greek and Roman mythology. Orion the Hunter plays a big part in these celestial soap operas going on nightly in the skies. One of the Greek and Roman stories Iíve told you many times in this column was how Orion the Hunter was dating Diana, goddess of the moon, and how her father Zeus sent a giant scorpion to fatally bite Orion to end the relationship. Thatís a great story, but even within Greek and Roman mythology there are other memorable stories of my favorite heavenly hunter.
One of them involves Orionís love of Princess Merope, the daughter of King Oenopion. King O, as I like to call him, was the king of a vast island nation and was not at all excited about his daughter marrying this rough around the edges behemoth hunter. He kept coming up with reason after reason to put off the wedding. He also sent Orion off on multiple missions with the false promise of rewarding the hunter with his daughterís hand in marriage.
King Oís meanest trick was to promise Merope to Orion if he could rid his land of wild beasts that perpetually posed a threat to his subjects. He wanted people to feel safe from these beasts from shore to shore. Orion took on this monumental task without hesitation. He was hot for Merope and would do anything for his Princess! He hunted night and day and day and night, and after months of slaying he was finally able to report to King O that the island was beast free. So was Orion finally going to hear royal wedding bells?
The answer from the king was ďNice job Orion, but I need just a little more time to give you my royal approval.Ē That did it! Orion was officially ticked off. He attempted to run off with Merope and a lope, but the royal guards caught up with the young couple and threw Orion in prison. To make matters even worse after all the work Orion had performed for King O, his royal heinous had his henchmen pluck out Orionís eyes and then plunked him down on a remote beach on the other side of the island.
The distraught and sightless Orion wandered hopelessly for days on end. It looked like the end for the mighty hunter, but many of the gods of Mt. Olympus took pity on him and lifted him off the island, restored his sight, and planted him on a far off tropical island where he hunted and fished to his heartís content. Life was so good there it was easy to forget about his lost love. In fact, Orion did fall in love again, but thatís a tale for another time.
Diagram of Orion...Click