Below the belt with Orion


With a period of dark moonless skies coming up, and (so far) an unusually snowless winter, let’s do some old-fashioned stargazing. Sure, mindstuff like last week’s Fermi bubbles provide great mental intrigue; but there’s nothing like the real, the tangible. Just as the word “water” is not water, the real universe will never be fully apprehended by our logic. So let’s go hands-on, under the real sky.

Of the 88 constellations, most are incoherent, hallucinogenic smatterings. Orion is different. Orion’s easily identified belt is often the first celestial pattern that a child will notice. And what better place to start strolling the boulevards of the universe? More than merely obvious, the three-stars-in-a-row not only mark the most brilliant constellation, but also float like a navigational buoy in the middle of the sky.

Can the sky have a “middle?” Yes, because Orion’s belt – that most famous article of cosmic clothing – sits smack on the celestial Equator, meaning that it floats directly over the Equator of Earth. Only stars in that location are seen by everyone, everywhere. A star over one of the poles – the North Star, say – is forever cloaked from people of the opposite hemisphere, obstructed by Earth itself. From most of the US, about a fourth of the Cosmos never rises. Major luminaries forever concealed from view include the nearest star (Proxima Centauri), the night’s second-brightest (Canopus) and the Southern Cross. But equatorial constellations are the lingua franca of space. Orion’s belt, straddling the Equator like a diplomat, is displayed around the world.

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While most cultures picture it as a belt, a few thousand years ago the Sumerians visualized it as the waistline of a sheep. Apparently this designation was too ludicrous to endure, and in a wonderful woolen rags-to-riches story, Orion overcame his ovine birth and got promoted to human.

The Hunter’s stars are not scattered randomly. Most share the same awesome 900-to-2,000-lightyears distance, forming a lavish association of blue suns of arc-welder intensity. Merely 1/1000th the age of Earth, these infants were born together from an immense cloud of gas that still dreamily envelops the constellation.

From our un-light-polluted region, binoculars pointed at the belt show it immersed in a multitude of stars like a swarm of fireflies. In truly rural areas, this faint cluster is seen with the naked eye. Your sky therefore passes the purity test if you can glimpse many more than just the three belt stars in that spot.

While the binoculars are handy, swing them below the leftmost belt star to the nearest little fuzzy patch: the Orion Nebula. Cameras attached to telescopes reveal this to display crimson, emerald and blue knots, whose dancing eddies magically sprout the fires of newborn suns. This stellar nursery is so large that our fastest rockets would need a half-million years to cross it. The entire womb glows like neon.

Equidistant above and below the belt stand the pumpkin-colored Betelgeuse and the blue/white Rigel. More than Orion’s brightest star, Rigel is among the most luminous objects in the galaxy, shining with the light of 55,000 suns. If it were as nearby as Proxima Centauri, we could read by its light – and the night sky would be deep blue instead of black.

As for orange Betelgeuse (say BET’l’jooz), it’s the largest bright star in all the heavens. If our Earth were represented by the period at the end of this sentence, Betelgeuse would be a ball that could enclose a 20-story building. Betelgeuse stands about halfway between us and all those blue/white suns that make up the rest of the constellation. It’s the gateway to the fabulous city beyond: Orion’s dazzling sapphires that will adorn the January sky every winter of our lives.

 

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