Read about the beautiful constellation of Orion!

As we enter October, we can finally see the night sky revealing a celestial masterpiece: the Orion constellation from the Northern hemisphere. It’s definitely one of my favorite constellations to photograph in the winter time. This captivating formation, known as “The Hunter,” has long been a source of wonder and inspiration across cultures and ages. As the Northern hemisphere transitions into the colder months, the Orion constellation becomes visible and easily identifiable. It rises in the Southeast and moves over the sky towards the West during the night. It is mostly visible in the proper winter months, so around January-February but you can already get a glimpse now if you are patient.

In this blog post, we’ll uncover some intriguing facts about Orion as it graces the night sky, from its mythological origins to its practical use in navigation.

The constellation of Orion. Altered photo by Astronomicca, original observation by Marc Sendra Martorell on Unsplash.

The allure of Orion begins with its prominent position in the night sky. While its visibility varies throughout the year, Orion is particularly prominent during the winter months, making it a seasonal highlight for stargazers.

The Iconic Belt, Orion Nebula and the Hunter’s Legend

One of the most striking features of the Orion constellation is its “Belt.” Composed of three brilliantly shining stars – Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka – this trio forms a nearly perfect line. Gazing upward on crisp winter nights, you’ll find the Belt of Orion in the middle of the constellation.

Right below the three iconic stars you can see a faint smeared out pink area. It’s not very visible, but it is perhaps more impressive than the stars themselves. This is the Orion Nebula (M42), a huge cosmic area of gas and dust.

The Orion Nebula (M42). This enormous collection of gas and dust is found directly under Orion’s Belt. Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash.

This is where new stars are born, in the cocoons of protective dust that allows newborn stars to grow into big shiny celestial bodies. It’s one of the most brilliant and easily observable nebulae in the night sky. Visible through binoculars or a small telescope on clear winter nights, this stellar nursery is breathtaking and beautiful for stargazers. 

According to Greek mythology, Orion, the great hunter, was granted a place among the stars by the gods, forever immortalized. (While an instagram wall might be impressive, nothing beats a beautiful night sky constellation).

The Hunter And Stellar Navigation

Orion offers more than just visual wonder – it serves as a practical tool for navigation in the night sky. The Belt of Orion can guide your eyes to other luminous celestial objects. Follow this line in one direction, and you’ll find yourself in the company of Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, also visible from the Northern hemisphere.

On the other end of the Belt’s trajectory lies the Pleiades star cluster, often referred to as the Seven Sisters. In travel navigation, the winter sky and Orion in particular become not only a cosmic legend but a practical aid for navigating the vast expanse above.

A Spectacular Meteor Shower Will Decorate Orion By Mid-October

From the end of September to the end of November, you can see a spectacular meteor shower in the Orion constellation. The meteor shower got its name from the Orion constellation, despite not having anything to do with the Hunter himself. The name, Orionids, acts more as a viewing aid.

This meteor shower will allow you to see more than 20 meteors per hour if you protect yourself from light pollution and avoid the moonlight. The show arises from Earth passing through the debris of Halley’s comet. This is the reason why the meteor showers happen at the same time every year. It’s because of Earth’s orbit. Debris that will interact with our atmosphere and burn up to create these glittering dots on the night sky. Some are large enough to become fire balls, so get comfortable and look up – you might see clear traces of fire in the sky.

The Grand Finale: The Misalignment Of Orion’s Stars

While Orion seems to be a strong hunter when viewed from the backyard, he actually is -like many of us- very unstable when you take a closer look. Specifically, when viewed from the side, it becomes apparent that constellations are nothing but 2D projections of a 3D space. Or, in other words, the stars are not located in the same area. It just looks that way to us.

The closest star is Orion’s left shoulder (the one to the right when viewed from Earth). Bellatrix is the name of this star and it is located “only” 250 light-years away from us. His other shoulder, the massive star Betelgeuse, is more than double as far away at 550 light-years. His knees and belt are found at more than 600 light-years away and while Orion’s Nebula takes the prize for the most iconic piece of the Hunter, it’s actually furthest away from us at a distance of over 1300 light-years. The stars are therefore not a part of the same neighborhood – it just looks that way to us, because we don’t see their separation along the line of sight. People who would like on a different planet and see the stars from different angles, would indeed not see the constellations we see, and the illustration should demonstrate why.

The Orion constellation is seen from Earth (black frame) as a projection of stars that are separated by hundreds of light-years. If you observed these stars from anywhere else but Earth, they would not look like the Orion we see due to this separation along the line of sight. Illustration: Astronomicca.

This is nothing special for Orion. This is how almost all constellations have come to be. Many years ago, in the ancient times, these blinking stars were the foundation for storytelling and the night sky was the blank canvas.

Over the years, constellations were created based on nothing but their appearance to us. This stands in painful contrast to today’s world where the night sky is explored via technology and viewed on screens. While being thankful for science and telescopes, I do still wish we would bring back the stories and imagination the night sky would spark. Even if just once a year, when we pass through the debris of a flying comet.

Happy stargazing!