Teaching Tip: Orion is Winter's Starry Hunter
- 2003 10 Mar
The winter sky is very exciting since many of the brightest stars are visible in the wintertime. For this reason, winter is the best time of year to begin learning the constellations. The best place to start is the bright constellation "Orion the Hunter."
Of all the constellations in the sky, Orion is the easiest star pattern to learn. Orion is formed of some of the brightest stars in the sky, and is therefore easy to see, even from under the city lights. Also, the star pattern of Orion is easy to learn and remember. Many people say they cannot see shapes in the patterns of the constellations. But few people have trouble seeing Orion in the shape of a man.
It's very easy to find "The Belt of Orion." Orion's Belt is formed of three bright stars, all close together and in a straight line. There are two bright stars above Orion's Belt that represent the body of the Hunter. And there are two bright stars under the Belt that represent Orion's legs. These stars give Orion very human proportions.
During late February and early March, Orion can be found high in the southern sky in the early evenings. Depending on your location, look for Orion straight above the south between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. this month. Orion's Belt is centered on the Celestial Equator, the very middle of the starry sky, in between the Celestial Poles. For this reason, Orion is the only constellation that can be seen from every location on the Earth, from the North Pole to the South Pole.
Once you have identified the basic outline, look for the "Sword of Orion." There is a faint trail of stars under the left side of Orion's Belt. This gives the impression of a sword tucked under the Belt. Once you find Orion's Sword, grab your binoculars or telescope! Within the Sword is the famous "Orion Nebula," a little fuzzy patch with a knot of tiny stars. The Orion Nebula can be seen with the unaided eye but is one of the most impressive telescopic sights in the starry sky.
Orion is seen in the sky facing the constellation "Taurus the Bull." This is another star pattern that is easy to pick out. If you look above Orion and to the right, you can see a bright reddish star. If you have a dark and clear sky, you might be able to tell that the bright star is at the upper left of a little triangle of stars. The bright star is the eye of the bull and the remaining stars form the bull's head.
The sight of Orion the Hunter facing off against Taurus the Bull is indeed a wondrous sight. These bright stars have been celebrated in literature for centuries:
"Aslant beneath the fore-body of the Bull is set the great Orion. Let none who pass him spread out on high on a cloudless night imagine that, gazing on the heavens, one shall see other stars more fair." -- from the "Phaenomena" of Aratus, circa 400 B.C.
Above and to the right of the head of the bull is the famous star cluster, "The Pleiades." This is a compact group of seven stars, about as big across as two full moons. The Pleiades should be easy to find even if you live in an urban location with a lot of streetlights. But from a rural location with unspoiled dark skies, the Pleiades are a thrilling sight.
Orion and the seven stars of the Pleiades are also mentioned in the Bible. We read that the LORD asked Job: "Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion?" -- Job 38:31.
And we are instructed by the prophet Amos to: "Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night: that calleth the waters of the sea, and poureth them out upon the face of the earth: The LORD is his name. -- Amos 5:8
This winter, the constellation of Taurus has a visitor, the ringed planet Saturn. This celestial body appears as a bright star above the upper stars of Orion, making an elongated triangle of stars. If you have a telescope with at least 100x magnification, Saturn's rings are an impressive sight.
As a planet, Saturn moves through the constellations. But Saturn is the slowest moving of the visible planets. It will be found in the winter sky in the neighborhood of Orion until 2007, as it moves slowly to the East over the passing years.
To the lower left of Orion is the bright star Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius is the brightest star in the constellation of "The Big Dog." For this reason, Sirius is also known as "The Dog Star." Above Sirius and to the left of Orion is the constellation "The Little Dog" with its bright star Procyon. And above the Little Dog is the constellation "Gemini the Twins."
These bright stars near Orion have stories of their own, to be told another time. But for this month, try to learn Orion and the Pleiades. If you learn these stars, it will be easier to learn the stars of Spring. And after a whole year, you will be able to learn all of the primary constellations. Since the constellations are your "road map to the sky," they will help you in learning the ancient techniques of celestial timekeeping and navigation.
The above is an excerpt from "The Classical Astronomy Update" by Jay Ryan, a free email newsletter for helping Christian homeschool families learn more about what's up in the starry sky. If you would like to regularly receive the full Update, please drop Jay an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jay Ryan is a former Contributing Editor to Sky & Telescope magazine. Now he applies all his efforts to the glory of God, especially for the benefit of Christian homeschoolers and other Christian kids.