Orion is one of the easiest constellations to identify in the winter sky. If you are interested in learning some constellations, now is a good time to start.
On a clear night, around nine or ten o’clock, look up in the southern sky (roughly half-way up and depending on time, maybe a bit to the east). You’ll see four bright stars forming a crude rectangle orientated somewhat vertically. Within the rectangle, near the middle, are three prominent stars arrayed in a row, equidistant, and dipping to the left. That’s Orion’s belt. A couple stars are visible in a hazy area a bit below the middle of Orion’s belt. That is his sword.
Orion was a prominent feature in Greek mythology where he was highly regarded as a hunter. It is interesting to note that Orion is referenced in Homer’s Iliad and the Odyssey, Paradise Lost, and three times in the Bible.
There are several myths about Orion, and one myth has him dying from stepping on a scorpion. For his eternal safety, the gods placed him in the heavens well away from the scorpion (Scorpius). He can be seen up there with his two dogs (Canus major and Canus minor) fighting Taurus the bull, and hunting Lepus the hare.
There is another interesting reason to look at Orion. The hazy area of Orion’s belt is the Orion nebula, the closest and most active area of star formation in the Milky Way. It’s often compared to a stellar nursery or maternity ward. The dimensions of this thing are mind-boggling. It’s about 13 light years across and only 1,500 light years away. In terms of actual miles, a light year represents six trillion miles. The Hubble Space Telescope has some amazing imagery of the nebula. You can view the images at the Hubble web site (http://hubblesite.org).
Look up at Orion the next chance you get. And while you’re at it, take a good look at the Orion nebula and ponder this: The light you’re seeing has been traveling through interstellar space for some fifteen hundred years before finally landing in your eye!
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Minot State University-Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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