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Orion is king of the winter sky

Orion is legendary astronomically with its treasure trove of wonderful celestial treasures.

Starwatch — Mike Lynch column sig
SW DIAGRAM FOR JAN 7-9, 2022.jpg

The constellations of winter are simply the best.

At first glance, the mighty constellation Orion the Hunter may remind you of an hourglass, with the neck made up of a short straight line of three bright stars. According to Greek and Roman mythology, the three stars in a row make up the belt of the hermit hunter, and the hourglass is the outline of Orion's torso.

This time of year my favorite constellation, my celestial buddy, begins the evening in the southeastern sky after evening twilight and forges his way westward the rest of the night. By about 4 a.m. Orion slips below the western horizon.

Orion also is legendary astronomically with its treasure trove of wonderful celestial treasures. It's the home of many bright stars, star clusters and nebulae.

Orion's calling card is a perfect line of three stars in a diagonal row that make up the hunter's belt. Nowhere else in the sky will you find anything like it.

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They're Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka from the lower left to the upper right. What's amazing is that while these stars look so perfectly lined up, they physically have nothing to do with each other; in fact, they're nowhere near each other. By an incredible astronomical coincidence, they just happen to be in nearly the same line of sight.

Orion's brightest star, Rigel, resides on the hunter's left knee.

A bright blue giant star more than 860 light-years away, Rigel is believed to be the largest star in a four-star system. It's a very young star, possibly only 10 million years old or so, and our sun has been around for about 6 billion years. It's much larger and more powerful than our home star, almost 70 times the sun's diameter and possibly more than a hundred thousand times as luminous.

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The second brightest star has one of the best star names in the sky. Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star, is pronounced by most as "beetle juice." It marks Orion's armpit. Betelgeuse is an Arabic name that roughly translates to "armpit of the mighty one." Even with the naked eye, you can see Betelgeuse's reddish hue. At least 700 million miles in diameter, Betelgeuse is a giant among giants, one of the biggest single things you can see from Earth with the naked eye. Betelgeuse is slowly dying and will eventually explode.

While Betelgeuse may be dying, there's also new life in Orion. Look below Orion's belt for the three fainter stars that outline the hunter's sword. You can't help but notice that the middle star in the sword is fuzzy. That's because it's not a star, but a nebula, a vast cloud of hydrogen gas and dust that’s being lit up like a fluorescent light by the energy of brand new stars.

SW PHOTO FOR JAN 7-9, 2022.jpg
The Orion Nebula is 1400 light-years away from Earth, and at least 25 light-years in diameter, more than 20 times the diameter of our solar system.
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The Orion Nebula is 1400 light-years away from Earth, and at least 25 light-years in diameter, more than 20 times the diameter of our solar system.

Within it, before our very eyes, stars are gravitationally being born.

Using even a small telescope, maybe one you got for Christmas, you can see four new stars that have formed in the great nebulae of Orion.

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It's called the Trapezium since the four stars are arranged in a tiny trapezoid-baseball diamond shape. These stars may be only 300,000 years old and show signs of developing new solar systems. There is a lot going on in that fuzzy little star below Orion's belt.

There are a lot of other celestial treasures in Orion, like the Horse Head Nebula and the Running Man Nebula. Both require large telescopes and diligence to see, but they are well worth the effort.

Next week I'll tell you the story of Orion, the magnificent heavenly hunter.
Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul and is author of the book, “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations” published by Adventure Publications. Send questions to mikewlynch@comcast.net .

The Rochester Astronomy Club welcomes new members and puts on public star parties. Their website is rochesterskies.org .

Starwatch — Mike Lynch column sig

Related Topics: SCIENCE AND NATURESTARWATCH
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