By David Ward
Clear nights are a rarity this time of year, but if we do have one, look over into the east for Orion, the grand spectacle of starry winter nights.
Orion, the hunter, is probably the most familiar constellation in the sky. Standing astride the celestial equator, he can be seen from both the northern and southern hemispheres. Although from south of the equator, he appears to be standing on his head.
There are many legends about this famous character. In some, Orion is the son of Poseidon, god of the sea. From his father he inherited the ability to walk on water, although I do not think the exact technique for his miraculous power is revealed. He is best known for his hunting skills and he boasted that he could kill any animal on earth.
Bragging turned out to be his downfall because the gods sent a tiny scorpion to kill him. It, too, was placed in the sky, but as far away from Orion as possible. We see the scorpion in the summer where it cannot give the hunter any more trouble.
Orion did not have a lot of luck with his love life either. One story tells us that the father of one beautiful princess he courted blinded him rather than have him for a son-in-law. Another legend tells us that the goddess Artemis, by whom he was smitten, was tricked into shooting Orion with her bow and arrow, mortally wounding him.
Then there is the story of the beautiful Seven Sisters whom he chased around ancient Greece for seven years. They spurned his amorous advances, pleaded with Zeus for relief and were placed in the sky as the Pleiades star cluster.
In ancient Babylonia before he was a hunter, Orion was simply a giant. Interestingly, all the stars in the constellation are giants also. Take a close look at them and you may notice that they are mostly blue-white in color, especially bright Rigel at the lower right corner of the constellation. These stars are blue-white super giants burning through their fuel much faster than our sun. Rigel shines perhaps as bright as 100,000 of our suns.
Check out Alnilam, the middle one of the three stars in Orion’s belt. Astronomers estimate that it may shine as much as 500,000 times brighter than our sun. Stars cannot sustain that brightness for long and Alnilam may explode as a super nova in the next million years or so.
There is one star in the constellation of Orion that is not blue-white, and maybe you noticed it. In the upper left-hand corner there is a bright orange-appearing star, Betelgeuse. No one is quite sure what the curious name means. Some say “shoulder of the giant” or even “armpit of the giant.” Other scholars insist that the name dates back to very ancient times and really means “armpit of the sheep wearing the white girdle.” Those people back then sound kind of strange, dressing up their animals like that. Betelgeuse is orange in color because it is a red super-giant star. It has the distinction of being one of the largest stars we can see, about 1,000 times the diameter of our sun. That means that a big chunk of our solar system would fit inside Betelgeuse. It has used up most of its fuel and could explode almost any day now, or at least in the next 20,000 years.
If you are confused about how Orion is oriented up there, he rises in the east early in the evening this time of year lying on his side so to speak. Later at night he will be standing upright in the south. Use the distinctive belt of three equally bright, equally spaced stars to find two other nearby bright stars. Point the belt down and to the left to find Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Often called the dog star, it is one of Orion’s two hunting dogs. Point the belt up and to the right to find Aldebaran, the angry red eye of Taurus the Bull battling the hunter.
Starting in later January, all five visible planets can be seen in the east before sunrise. Venus and Jupiter are the bright ones, but dimmer Mars, Saturn and Mercury are there also.
On Jan. 2, the Earth arrives at that point in its orbit known as perihelion, our closest approach to the sun. Our little planet reaches its top speed of the year on that date also, traveling at almost 67,000 miles per hour. If things in your life seem to be happening too fast, blame it on perihelion.