There’s a spectacular constellation in easy view this time of year – Orion, the hunter. Look due south (from Northwest DC, that’s toward downtown) and you will see him, striding over the trees. Orion’s body contains two of the ten brightest stars that we can see year-round.
Above photo by Matthew Spinelli; below, by Anirban Nandi.
Both are from Wikimedia Commons.
Orion was a minor Greek god and there are various Greek myths explaining why he is up there. In one, after a checkered history, he went hunting with Artemis and boasted he could kill anything on earth, whereupon Mother Earth killed him, possibly with a scorpion. Other goddesses persuaded Zeus to put him in heaven.
Use your imagination to make out the body. The first stars you will notice are the brightest ones – reddish Betelgeuse on his right shoulder and bluish Rigel marking his left foot. They are both super-giants, hundreds of light years away. (A light year is about 6 trillion miles, roughly the distance that a beam of light can travel in a year.) Betelgeuse is 643 light years away and Rigel 772.
Orion’s “belt” is easy to see – it consists of three stars in a slanting row. In South America they are known as “The Three Marys “(Las Tres Marias). The Chinese call the constellation “Shen,” which refers to the three stars.
In western culture, the three stars in the belt are called Mintaka (900 light years away), Alnilam (4 million years old, 1,359 light years away), and Alnitak (800 light years away). All these are Arabic names that have come down to us from the period around 800-1200 A.D., when the Abbasid caliphate ruled the Middle East and the major astronomers in the world were in Baghdad and Damascus.
Hanging from the “belt” is a “sword,” which contains the famous Orion Nebula. You can see it in detail with ordinary binoculars.
Because it is relatively close, this nebula is a favorite study of astronomers.
A long human history
People were looking at this group of stars and making stories several thousand years before Christ. In western history, the early Sumerians in Mesopotamia interpreted these stars as a man and called him their hero Gilgamesh. The Egyptians saw the constellation as Osiris, their sun god of rebirth. Orion is the ancient Greek name, and he is mentioned by that name in the Odyssey, the Aeneid and the Old Testament.
Many other peoples named this set of stars. For example, the Rig Veda (Hindu) calls them “Mriga,” the deer, and sees a group of stars in this part of the sky as a deer with hunting dogs. On our continent, the Lakota Indians saw a bison.
A sense of wonder
When I look at Orion, I remind myself of the many years the light of those stars has traveled to reach us. The vastness of space is hard to comprehend.
And, I enjoy imagining all the people who have looked at those stars and made patterns and stories about them. Maybe even the cavemen, and people today, in far-off places like Siberia and the Pacific islands and the African countries.
Wikipedia is a good place to start – articles on Orion, and on astronomy generally. Another excellent site is EarthSky.org. Each week, EarthSky describes significant sky events for that week – moon, stars, planets, meteors, etc.
Also, the Nature Center in Rock Creek Park has a good small planetarium. Starting January 1st, the planetarium will show “The Winter Night Sky” (45 minutes) every Saturday and Sunday at 1 p.m., free, for all ages. To find more information on the planetarium shows and other Nature Center programs, call 202-895-6070 or visit nps.gov/rocr.
This is an updated version of a post originally published in February 2014.