As if Thanksgiving dinner, endless football, and cool autumn days weren’t enough, the night sky offers one more treat to look forward to at this time of year: the return of Orion, the hunter, to prime viewing time. Tonight, it clears the eastern horizon by around 9 o’clock.
Orion is perhaps the most beautiful of all the 88 constellations. It’s certainly one of the easiest to pick out, thanks to its compact “belt” of three stars, which points almost straight up from the horizon as the hunter rises.
Off to the left of the belt is Orion’s orange “shoulder” — the star Betelgeuse. And to the right of the belt is the hunter’s blue-white heel — the star Rigel. Both of them are supergiants — stars that are much larger, brighter, and heavier than the Sun. And both are destined to end their lives with titanic explosions.
Some other heavy stars are taking shape in a region that’s about half-way between Rigel and Orion’s Belt — the Orion Nebula. To the eye alone, it looks like a faint, colorless smudge of light. But it’s actually a vast cloud of gas and dust that’s given birth to thousands of stars, with many more still taking shape today. Binoculars reveal the brightest of those young stars, while a telescope shows many more.
They’re among the many sights that help make Orion one of the most prominent constellations — and a beautiful skywatching treat as we head through the final weeks of autumn and into the long, cold nights of winter.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2011
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.