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Now is the Time to Take in the Wonders of the Orion Constellation

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Clear SkiesBy Scott Levine

With all the festivities this time of year, candles, turkeys or trees, this is the most festive time in the skies, too. Welcome to Orion season.

Recorded references to the constellation Orion go back close to 40,000 years. Different peoples have seen it as a bird, a messenger or any number of other things important to them. We take our view of it from the Greeks and Romans; a mighty hunter who spends his nights fighting Taurus the bull, while his two dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, cheer him on.

The first thing most of us spot is the line of three stars that form his famous belt. With those as our jumping-off point, Orion becomes an amazing place to explore.

First, toward the left or above the beltline, let’s visit bright orange Betelgeuse, his left shoulder. This is an old and enormous star, whose light left for our eyes around 600 years ago.

Now, draw a line diagonally across and through the belt to icy blue-white Rigel, at his right foot. Rigel is the fifth brightest star we can see in Westchester’s nights. That one dot in the black is a system of four stars gravitationally tied to each other.

I love to stop and stare at this pair. Can you notice their colors? They signify that they’re different types of stars, but both are among types that will one day die in tremendous explosions called a supernova. It’s unlikely, but it may have already happened. With the incredible distances their light must travel, it would take about 600 years for us to learn if Betelgeuse did, around 800 for Rigel.

These two stars are incredible, but they have nothing on Alnilam. The belt’s middle star is one of the most distant and luminous we can see with the naked eye. Astronomers believe it puts out around 500,000 times more light than our sun. It’s truly powerful, and it almost hurts to think what it must be like close up.

I mention these three because they are relatively far away as these things go. If we widen our gaze a bit, we can see that Orion is cordoned off from the rest of the sky by a ring of six other very bright stars often called the Winter Hexagon, which we’ll talk about again later.

The Hexagon’s stars all happen to be much closer to us than Orion’s more distant stars. The farthest is only a tenth of Betelgeuse’s distance to us. This gives us a great chance to see that the sky isn’t just a flat sheet but has depth and texture.

Seen this way, Orion’s stars aren’t just within the Hexagon, but behind it, with its stars drawing our eye deeper and deeper into our galaxy. First, we reach Betelgeuse, then Rigel, and then, much farther beyond, Alnilam. If you can, take some time to soak in this scene, the cold, the smells, the depth, the stars’ colors, the entire corner of the sky twinkling like holiday lights on our friends’ houses.

These stars will guide us through the nights until they vanish again in the spring. This is a great time to start exploring. Happy holidays and thanks for reading this year. Clear skies, everyone!

Scott Levine (astroscott@yahoo.com) is an astronomy writer and speaker from Croton-on-Hudson. He is also a member of the Westchester Amateur Astronomers, who are dedicated to astronomy outreach in our area. For information about the club including membership, newsletters, upcoming meetings and lectures at Pace University and star parties at Ward Pound Ridge Reservation, visit westchesterastronomers.org.

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