Winter Is Coming
Orion’s appearance in the night sky means that winter is coming. From mid-northern latitudes, Orion is visible in the evening from November to early May, and in the morning from late July to November. Orion is also visible in the Southern hemispheres, where it appears upside down during the summer months.
Orion Family of Constellations
The constellation Orion is pictured as a giant hunter with a shield in his hand, a belt and sword around his waist, and surrounded by his hunting dogs (Canis Major and Canis Minor). Beneath Orion’s feet, his dogs are pursuing a hare (or rabbit) in the form of the constellation Lepus who, like its wild namesake, is keeping a low profile in the celestial undergrowth. Together with Monoceros (unicorn), these five constellations form the Orion family, although the latter was only created in the 17th century to fill the large gap left clear by the ancient Greeks between Orion and Hydra.
Mostly Contains Young Blue Supergiants
All of the seven main stars in Orion, with the exception of the red super giant Betelgeuse (429 ly), are young blue supergiants. These include Rigel (777 ly) Bellatrix (243 ly ), Saiph (724 ly), Alnitak (826 ly), Alnilam (1360 ly) and Mintaka (919 ly).
Contains 2 of Brightest Stars in Sky
Orion contains 2 of the 10 brightest stars in the night sky. The constellation of Orion’s brightest star is Rigel, which shines 40,000 times brighter than our sun, and represents the hunter’s left knee. Next brightest is Betelgeuse, which is 100,000 times brighter than our sun, and depicts the top right shoulder of Orion.
Orion Fighting a Bull
Orion is depicted as fighting a bull, represented by the nearby constellation of Taurus. The very bright, red star on the top left corner of Taurus is called Aldebaran and represents the eye of the bull. The constellation Taurus consists of two groups of stars called Hyades (“the rainy ones”) and Pleiades, which are a star cluster containing hundreds of young blue stars, only a handful of which can be seen with the naked eye.
Orion Chasing the Daughters of Atlas
In Greek mythology the Pleiades were the 7 daughters of the giant Atlas, who were chased over the face of the earth by Orion after becoming the object of his affections. They then begged Zeus to save them from Orion’s pursuit, and so he placed them in the night sky with the giant hunter chasing them from east to west, without ever being able to catch them.
The 3 bright stars in the constellation’s middle represent Orion’s sword belt, namely Alnilam, Mintaka and Alnitak. The equator of the sky passes close to the upper star of his belt, so that half of Orion is in the Northern hemisphere, and the other half is in the southern hemisphere.
Below his belt you can see a curved line of 3 stars, which represent the giant’s sword. The middle star is, in actual fact, not a star but a nebula. The Orion Nebula (M42) is a huge cloud of dust and gas almost 6 light years across inside which new stars are being formed. It is 1,500 light years distant and at the center of the nebula are four stars, known as “The Trapezium” which help light it up.
Home to 2 Meteor Showers
Orion is home to two meteor showers, both of which are associated with the dust and debris trail left behind by Halley’s Comet. The Chi Orionids occurs in December each year, and can produce around 5 meteors per hour, whilst its more prolific cousin, the Orionids, peaks around October 21 with around 20 meteors per hour.
Stars Moving Apart
The stars in Orion are gradually moving apart, but they are located at such great distances from us that the constellation will remain recognizable a long time after most of the other constellations, whose stars are closer to earth, have morphed into new shapes. One event which could cause a dramatic image change, however, would be Betelgeuse going supernova, which is predicted to happen sometime in the next million years. This will initially cause a light to shine as bright as the full moon in Orion, but a few weeks later that will fade, leaving a dark place where Orion’s shoulder once lay. As internationally recognized star expert James B. Kaler explains, “it will make a God-awful mess of the constellation Orion.”