Orion – the hunter

January 15, 2017


orioneerAfter the Big Dipper, Orion is easily the most known and the most pointed out constellation by the people who recognize at least some of them. There is the obvious belt, although Orion lived BP (Before Pants) so he wears a short skirt, or kilt or such, and below that hangs his big, um sword. Maybe it’s just a dagger, or possibly it’s a sword, not that it matters.

Orion is Gilgamesh to those of you who follow the Sumerian tradition. His story goes way back. People have been playing connect-the-dots and making up stories for a long time. Our oldest stories tend to be those involving the patterns in the stars. That may be because these patterns are the least changing thing about our environment. Changes in the stars are along the same order as continental drift.

belt2Orion’s first girlfriend was Merope, who is the brightest member of the nearby Pleiades cluster. Her dad was kind of a dick. He promised Merope she could marry Orion but then he blinded Orion with poison and sent him adrift in a wee boat.

Fortunately the sun-god Helios gave Orion his sight back and he eventually got a new girlfriend who was probably a much better match for him. She was Artemis, also known as Diana, the goddess of the moon.

tinkertoyorionLike Orion, Artemis liked to kill animals so together they ran around smacking all the woodland critters with clubs or shooting them full arrows. They were a bit too good at it so Gaia, hippie goddess of the Earth, sent Scorpius to stop them. With his girlfriend’s help Orion managed to kill the giant scorpion but got stung in the process and he died. The Greek gods, as they typically do, turned Orion and Scorpius into star patterns and placed them in the sky. But the pair continued to make war on each other even though they were now just coincidental alignments of balls of radiating nuclear fusion. Hydrogen is rather vengeful. So the gods put Orion in the winter and Scorpius in the summer. Peace was restored.

Now days as Artemis circles the sky with the moon she hooks up with Orion about thirteen times per year so that’s nice. That’s better than a lot of married couples.

So much for story telling, now for the astronomy. Just below the left-most star of Orion’s belt you’ll find the Horsehead Nebula. Except you won’t. You can’t see it in a telescope, unless you are a member of the liar’s club, which of course I am.

horsehead3Yes I know there is a picture of the Horsehead Nebula on the box of the telescope at Costco. But you still won’t see it in real life unless you know that guy with a telescope the size of a studio apartment, and the night is perfect, and you are so high up in the mountains you need oxygen, and you have oxygen, and you have a fancy expensive filter made especially so some smug smartass can swear they saw the Horsehead. But it’s totally worth it. If I were you I would make it my life’s goal.

First you stare and stare and stare into the eyepiece. The cone-rich fovea of your retina has a sharp focus but it is less light sensitive than the rest of your retina, so you have to use averted vision, or perverted vision, whatever works. Eventually an ethereal faint glow with a tiny crooked notch in the middle seems to appear for a second or two and then fade away. The glow and the notch are both pretty much the same intensity as the background of the sky. That’s the problem. That’s a huge problem. After a couple of minutes of trying, just say “Oh. Wow.” and then let someone else have a try.

It's mostly physics, but there is a fair amount of chemistry going on here as well.Orion’s handy sword, dagger, butter knife, whatever, looks like a jumble of stars to your naked eye. But it is mostly M42, famous throughout the galaxy as the great Orion Nebula. Nearby is M43, a small adorning accessory to the famous nebula.

M42 is probably the most favorite thing of all for young kids to aim their small cheap telescopes at, other than the moon, and the neighbors. That’s because it looks great in practically any telescope, as do the moon and the neighbors.

The Orion Nebula is the pic which should be on the Costco telescope box, even though they would use the Hubble Space Telescope version. The nebula glows in the dark because there are are several brand new baby stars screaming their ultraviolet heads off in this crib. We call it an emission nebula but what we really mean is screaming ultraviolet baby heads.

oriThe nebulousness of M42 and M43 is part of a cloud that extends throughout the greater Orion area. It stretches from his knees to the belt and beyond, including the Horsehead, the Flame, and much more. What we are basically seeing here is a bright star-forming region on our own cul-de-sac within our own tiny neighborhood of the Milky Way Galaxy. It’s a garden within our grassy backyard where recently planted seeds are sprouting. Our neighborhood is a sub-development of a small rural village known as the Orion Spur, a sort of little backwater arm-let wedged in between the real urban arms of our galaxy, which are the Sagittarius and Perseus arms.

Remember, if our solar system were the size of a coffee cup, then our galaxy would be the size of the whole North American Continent. You can put a lot of coffee cups in North America. And we do. The other day I went into a Starbucks, and there was another Starbucks!


Orion the hunter is surrounded by lots of friends each with their own constellation, and all of them are characters in his many adventures. He has two dogs, Canis Major, which is definitely a major dog, and Canis Minor, which only has two stars. He’s like one of those sassy little wiener dogs I guess. A lot of people do that, I don’t know why. But I notice when my neighbors walk their dogs by my house, a lot of them have a main dog, and then they have a little auxiliary back-up dog. That’s what Orion has going on. The little dog is like one of those spare tires that are not as tall and it makes a funny noise if you go too fast.

Orion and Taurus, photo by Brad Snowder.

Carpe Noctem

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