We’re entering a period of dark moonless skies, and we’re far from bright city lights. So let’s do some old-fashioned stargazing, and go hands-on under the sky.
Of the 88 constellations, most are incoherent, hallucinogenic smatterings. Orion is different. Along with the Big Dipper (best-seen in the spring), Orion’s easily identified belt is often the first celestial pattern 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 eastern sky from 6 to 8 p.m., and then in the south from 8 p.m. until midnight.
The Hunter’s stars are not scattered randomly. They mark the nearest spiral arm of our own galaxy, looking outward, away from the Milky Way’s center. Most share the same awesome 900-to-2,000 light-years’ distance, forming a lavish association of blue suns of arc-welder intensity. Merely 1/1,000th the age of Earth, these infants were born together from an immense cloud of gas that still dreamily envelops the constellation in long-exposure but zero-magnification (meaning 1x) photographs.
From our un-light-polluted region, binoculars pointed at the belt show it immersed in a multitude of little stars, like a swarm of fireflies. Away from the lights of Kingston or New Paltz, this faint cluster is faintly 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. This is the nearest place that newborn suns are being created. This stellar nursery 1,500 light-years away 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 bright 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 Alpha 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 as tall as a 20-story building.
Betelgeuse stands about halfway between us and all those blue-white suns that make up the belt and the rest of the constellation. It’s the gateway to the fabulous city beyond, and to Orion’s dazzling sapphires that will adorn the January sky every winter of our lives.