Over the past week or so, I’ve received e-mails from several readers asking about an in-line formation of three stars they had noticed in the southern sky and asked if I could identify them.
I’ve written many times about this particular apparition but for the readers who asked and for those stargazers who may also be wondering, maybe one more time won’t hurt
Those three in-line stars he saw belong to the huge celestial form of Orion, the Hunter, which can now be found in the high southern skies and is always worth looking for at this time of year.
It doesn’t take too much of an effort the find Orion and many stargazers believe it is the easiest of all the constellations to find. Before you say “What about the ease of locating the Big Dipper?” I have to remind you that the Big Dipper is an asterism and not a constellation.
What makes it so easy is perhaps the alignment of the stars especially the alignment of those three equally bright stars that are lined up in a straight line but angled slightly upward.
In most of the graphics you see of Orion it shows the “hunter” kneeling on his right knee, a club held high over his head with his right hand while the left hand holds on to a lion’s pelt.
The four stars that represent the hunter’s body are the huge red super giant named Betelgeuse marking the right shoulder of Orion while a short distance to the right is another fairly bright star marking Orion’s left shoulder. This star is named Bellatrix which some readers may recognize since it was used as the name of an evil character in the Harry Potter series of books.
Below these two stars you will find those three stars laid out in an upward slanting straight line. Starting at the bottom and working your way upward the first in line is Alnitak, the second Alnilam and the third is Mintaka. These are the three stars representing Orion’s belt.
A short distance below Alnilam, see if you can spot a fuzzy blob of pale light. This light is coming from a tremendous cloud of hydrogen gas that is being illuminated by the intense radiation from four stars that lie buried within the cloud. These four stars are called The Trapezium can only be seen by using a telescope.
Astronomers recognize the overall gaseous cloud as The Great Nebula in Orion and designate it as Messier object 42. This star nursery is one of the finest objects to seen when observed through a pair of binoculars or a telescope.
There are two other stars that need mentioning. The one that marks Orion’s right knee is named Saiph while the very, very bright star Rigel identifies the left foot.
Rigel is super-giant 57,000 times as bright as our parent Sun. It is a remarkable star when you consider it is burning up its fuel at a reckless rate and eventually will become so unstable it will explode. Not to worry, however, it still has enough fuel to “run” it another 8 million years.
It is interesting to know that of the 25 brightest stars in the sky, three of them can be found among Orion’s constellation. Orion also holds the distinction of being the only celestial constellation mentioned three times in the Bible.
Getting back to Betelgeuse, astronomers have been keeping a wary eye on the bright red star in Orion’s shoulder. All of a sudden, Betelgeuse isn’t bright anymore — a sign that the star could be on the verge of supernova. A new analysis by astronomers at Villanova University shows that Feb. 21st could be a key date for the unstable super giant. It may become a spectacular sight but we’ll just have to wait a week or so to find out.