Night Sky In March: Orion The Hunter

Falling on the celestial equator and visible from both the northern and southern hemispheres, Orion the Hunter is one of the most easily recognizable constellations. His belt, consisting of three bright stars in a straight line, points directly to Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky. His companions are Canis Major and Canis Minor, and the nearby constellation of Taurus the Bull is sometimes seen as his quarry.

In March, Orion can be seen in the southern sky at nightfall, with Lepus the Hare below his feet. Orion is easily identified by his jeweled belt. The three bright blue-white stars that make up Orion’s Belt are, from left to right, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. The Arabic names all relate to their location. They mean “the girdle”, “string of pearls”, and “the belt” respectively.

The brightest star in the constellation is blue-white Rigel, Orion’s right foot. The red giant Betelgeuse is his left shoulder. His right shoulder is Bellatrix, translated as “female warrior” or “conqueror”. At an angle from the belt of Orion, a straight line of three stars forms his sword or dagger. The middle star of the sword is actually not a star but the Orion Nebula, M42, one of the few nebulae that can be seen without binoculars. It is a mass of gas and dust, a kind of stellar nursery. The Hubble Space Telescope has identified as many as 3,000 stars in M42, some of them as young as 10,000 years.

As with many other Greek myths, Orion is yet another mortal who was mistreated by the gods, and then turned into a heavenly body or constellation. One version of the legend has Artemis the moon goddess falling in love with the Hunter. Believing that she is neglecting her duties, her brother Apollo either tricks her into killing Orion, or has him killed by the Scorpion. To make amends, Orion is placed in the sky with his animals. The Scorpion is banished to the other end of the sky and can never come near him again.

The Babylonians saw Orion as The Great Shepherd, and the Sumerians named the constellation Gilgamesh, after the hero in their epic. In Sanskrit, Orion is called Vyadh, which also means the Hunter. And in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Betelgeuse Seven is Ford Prefect’s home planet, even though he has been passing himself off as a car salesman from Guilford.