Orion in the January Night Sky

OrionAt this time of year the dominating star group is the constellation Orion rising in the east in early evening. Look for a large, vertical near-rectangle of four stars about half-way up toward the zenith from the southern horizon.

This near-rectangle is about twice as tall as the width of your fist seen at arm’s length. It’s standing on end, with a nearly perfectly straight row of three stars in a diagonal line right in its center, Orion’s most distinctive feature. It has a bright red star in its upper left corner named Betelgeuse and a bright blue-white star in the lower right corner named Rigel.

The three stars in a line inside the rectangle form the belt of Orion and some even fainter stars in another line, pointing down from the belt form Orion’s sword. The red star Betelgeuse represents one of Orion’s shoulders. A line of faint stars curving off that shoulder, and up over the top of the rectangle forms a raised arm.

OrionArtAs pictured here, Orion is the gigantic hunter of primordial times described in Greek mythology. One story says Orion challenged the gods by claiming that he could kill every wild animal on Earth. Some versions then say Artemis shot him with her arrows; but others say that Artemis produced a great scorpion which killed him. The gods raised him and the scorpion to the skies, which of course is the origin of the Scorpio/Scorpius constellation.

The nearby constellations of Canis Major and Canis Minor are visualized as Orion’s hunting dogs.

However, Orion was talked about by anciencient people long before the Greeks came along. The Bible mentions Orion three times. The book of Job chapter 9 verse 9 describes God saying, “He is the maker of the Bear and Orion”. Then in chapter 38 verse 31, God questions Job’s wisdom by asking , “Can you loosen Orion`s belt?” The prophet Amos records in chapter 5 verse 8 that God is “He who made the Pleiades and Orion.”

The evidence is that stories about Orion have been handed down from the earliest civilizations. In ancient Aram, the constellation was known as Nephila, and Orion’s descendants were known as Nephilim, the pre-flood “giants in the earth” of Biblical fame.

The stars were associated with Osiris, the god of rebirth and afterlife, by the ancient Egyptians who were descendants of Noah’s grandson, Mizraim. The Giza pyramid complex, which consists of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khafre and the Pyramid of Menkaure, is said to be a sky-map of the Belt of Orion. Even farther in the past, the Babylonian star catalogues name Orion, “The Heavenly Shepherd”. Other Babylonian stories called Orion “The Brilliant One” or the “Bearer of Light”.

From this name is derived several modern words including ORACLE…someone you go to to seek enlightenment…also ORATION…a formal speach intended to convince or enlighten. To the Hebrew contemporaries of the Babylonians, the “Heavenly Shepherd” was their picture of the messiah. Thus, the meanings of Orion have to do with bringing light and guidance.

Getting back to astronomy, the Orion Constellation includes some interesting stars and objects. Betelgeuse, Orion’s right shoulder known alternatively by its Bayer designation “Alpha Orionis,” is a massive red supergiant star nearing the end of its life. When it explodes it will even be visible during the day. It is the second brightest star in the Orion constellation, but was mistakenly classified as the brightest because it is a variable star and was experiencing a tremendous increase in brightness at the time it was classified. The actual brightest star in Orion is Rigel forming Orion’s left leg.

Hanging from Orion’s belt is his sword, consisting of several stars ending with the Orion Nebula (M42). This is a spectacular object which can be clearly identified with the naked eye as something other than a star; using binoculars, its swirling clouds of stars, luminous gas, and dust can be observed. Another famous nebula better observed with a telescope is the Horsehead Nebula, just below the left-most belt star. It contains a dark dust cloud whose horsehead shape gives the nebula its name.