Favorite food? Pizza. Apple pie is a close second. Favorite movie? Very probably “A Night at the Opera.” The lessons, as well as the antics, are nonstop features of the Marx Brothers’ classic. Favorite football team? Give me Joe Namath and the NY Jets winning the 1969 Super Bowl. Favorite object in the night sky? Hands down, has to be Orion. Well, make that Orion and Canis Major. You can’t really have one without the other. There’s an awful lot of astronomy to be learned from the Hunter and his loyal Big Dog.
It’s funny how things work out. Without the light pollution that poisons our view, the ancients looked up after each sunset and saw gods, kings and ferocious beasts. But, the brightest star in the sky, Sirius, isn’t any of those things. Instead, Greek astronomers called it as they saw it, “glowing.” Sirius is the head of the dog, standing on its hind legs, awaiting the commands of its master. Look for the most prominent point of light in the southern sky this month and you’ll find Sirius.
Sirius and the other stars of Canis Major point the way to Orion. It is probably our most recognizable constellation. (The Big Dipper is an asterism, a familiar grouping of stars, within the constellation of Ursa Major.)
Though it is the second brightest star in Orion, Betelgeuse draws all the attention. Its name is Arabic and translates to the (right) hand or shoulder of the hunter. Betelgeuse is an incredibly large red giant, while Orion’s alpha star, Rigel – Arabic for foot – is smaller, yet brighter and distinctly blue.
The star marking the western, or left, shoulder of Orion is Bellatrix, Latin for ‘female warrior.” Let your eye travel further west from it to find Orion’s bow.
Between Bellatrix and Rigel is Orion’s belt, comprised of three bright stars that are moving together through space. The middle star is quite a distance from its bookends, but for us, all align wondrously. To the south of the belt is the real gem of Orion, the most remarkable nebula in the sky. You can see its haziness with binoculars, but its beauty is truly unveiled with the help of a telescope.
From end to end, the nebula stretches about 24 light years across and lies well over 1300 light years from Earth. It’s huge and distant and contains all the ingredients for the emergence of new stars within its veil.
So, in this relatively narrow section of the sky, we find our brightest star, an outrageously enormous red giant, it’s smaller, yet brighter, blue sister and a magnificent gas cloud, or nebula, serving as a star incubator. If you’re thinking of a place to delve into the cosmos, this is it.
For me, Orion is a melting pot. It’s Greek, it’s Arabic, it’s red, it’s blue. It’s masculine, yet one of its shoulders is named for a woman. Its most striking and well-known stars are closer to their deaths than their births. And yet, new, unnamed stars are forming within its nebula, a generational passing of the baton playing out before our eyes. And, finally, right next to it is a reminder of the endless admiration we give to man’s best friend, shining brightest of all.
Orion is an egalitarian wonder. It’s an equal opportunity constellation. Whether by accident or by design, like my favorite movie, its many themes are there to be revealed, if we choose to see them.
Even in the sky, we sometimes run the risk of over-analyzing. But, certainly, there is an equal risk of not looking deep enough. With Orion, whatever assumptions one may have simply fall away. As we discover its many facets, we see the value of turning away from generalizations and preconceived notions.
Orion begs not to be stereotyped. And it’s not alone. We can find throughout the night sky an infinite number of subtle messages, many of which we can apply here on the ground. Real beauty, as well as the truth, often lies within, sometimes needing just a little more perspective, a willingness to let go, and a desire to consider all possibilities.