Pathways to Astronomy advises beginning stargazers to learn the constellations. And, it says, the best way to do that is to learn the stories behind them: Making that mental connection between the constellations and their cooresponding star lore helps stargazers find and remember constellation shapes and locations in the sky. That being said, I will periodically post blogs featuring constellations to aid in the memorizing process.
The constellation in the spotlight: Orion.
I chose Orion because the constellation is one of several winter constellations (the constellations most visible in the winter months) and because of the activity going on in the Orion region this month with the Orionid meteor shower. Sadly, it was too cloudy for me to see any meteors at the shower’s peak on Oct. 21. Stargazers who missed the meteor shower on Oct. 21 will be relieved to know that the Orionids will continue to grace the night sky until about mid-November, albeit with progressively decreasing frequency.
On Oct. 24 I talked with astronomy graduate student Phil Rosenfield about constellations, particularly the Orion constellation. He was happy to answer any questions I had about Orion, because, he said, Orion is his favorite constellation.
In light of the Orionid meteor shower, Rosenfield had some advice for stargazers who have never watched a meteor shower: Don’t set your hopes up too high. “Meteor showers are hard to catch,” Rosenfield said. “They’re hit and miss. Stargazers new to meteor showers can be let down, because they expect to see something amazing but then only see two or three [meteors].”
However, that doesn’t mean meteors are impossible to spot. “We’re constantly being bombarded by dust, by meteors,” Rosenfield said. “Sometimes I’ll see five in one night in a dark sky just while I’m walking around.” (For more advice on watching meteor showers, check out this article I found at msnbc.com.)
Rosenfield says the Orion constellation is one of the easiest constellations to spot, thanks to the three stars that make up Orion’s Belt: Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak. (He says the stars in Orion’s Belt in Spanish are called ‘Las Tres Marias.’)
Other interesting components of the Orion constellation:
- Two supergiant stars of different colors– Betelgeuse (a red supergiant star in Orion’s armit) and Rigel (a blue supergiant star, and one of Orion’s feet).
- Two star nebulas, or active star-forming regions of interstellar gas and dust– the Horsehead Nebula (which gets its name from it’s horsehead shape) and the Orion Nebula (which looks like the middle ‘star’ of Orion’s sword).
I asked Rosenfield why different drawings of the Orion constellation showed Orion holding different things. (Some variations include a club and a shield, a club and a lion’s pelt, a sword and a shield and a bow and arrow.) He told me the variations in illustrations of Orion are simply modern attempts to reflect the different stories in the constellation, and that the Greeks probably didn’t intend him to be holding anything specific.
“It’s not a matter of which [combination] it should be [in Orion’s hands],” Rosenfield said. “It wasn’t ‘this one represents this.’ It’s just a story, folklore. I mean, Hercules is sprawled out up there and he’s not holding anything.”
I’m sure I’d only succeed in butchering the story (or stories) behind the Orion constellation in a summary, so I’ve posted an excerpt. Here is one version of the legend of Orion the Hunter, courtesy of Pathways to Astronomy:
“The king of the island Chios had a lovely daughter, Merope. His island was filled with savage beasts, and to rid his kingdom of these dangerous animals, the king called on Orion to kill the beasts and make his kingdom safe. When the task was done, Orion met Merope and made unwelcome advances. In punishment, he was blinded by the king, but after doing penance, he had his sight restored. After reaching an old age, however, Orion one day stepped on a scorpion, which stung and killed him. On his death, the gods placed him in the sky with his faithful dogs [Canis Major and Canis Minor] (one of whom chases Lepus, the rabbit), forever attacking the wild bull, Taurus. Beyond the bull, Merope and her sisters (the Pleiades [a cluster of stars in the constellation Taurus]) run from the hunter, who pursues them each night across the sky. The scorpion [Scorpius] was also placed in the sky, but on the other side of the heavens so that Orion would never again be threatened by it.”