Orion on display above the southern horizon

The premier constellation of the winter heavens is almost certainly the mighty Orion which currently glistens above the southern horizon in this month’s early evening Colorado sky.

Aside from the Big Dipper, the Southern Cross, and perhaps the springtime constellation of Scorpius, Orion is the most prominent and best known of all the constellations, and not without justification. Three second-magnitude stars set in almost a perfect straight line mark the trim waist of this mighty hunter/warrior of cultural mythology. The Belt Stars are then framed by a set of four first- and second-magnitude stars, starting with the reddish shoulder star Betelgeuse on Orion’s northeast corner, followed by Bellatrix, Rigel and Saiph on the northwest, southwest and southeast corners of Orion, respectively.

By Roger B. Culver

Just above a line joining Bellatrix and Betelgeuse one finds the head of Orion marked by a small triangle of fainter stars, which astronomers have whimsically offered as “proof” that Orion was a “no-brains, all-brawn” type of character.

Dangling from Orion’s belt are three fainter stars situated in a vertical north-south line, which serve to mark Orion’s sword. The middle star of the sword was referred to as the “smoke star” by the Native Americans, owing to its indistinct or “smoky” appearance to the naked eye. This “fuzziness” is due to the presence of a huge cloud of gas and dust nearly 20 light years across which is appropriately called “The Great Nebula of Orion.”

Fainter stellar appendages also can be traced off Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, which serve to outline Orion’s arms holding various items, including weapons, animal skins, etc.

Orion’s location on the celestial equator permits it to be viewed from both the earth’s northern and southern hemispheres, and Orion in one of the few constellations that has a relatively clear outline. As a result, virtually every culture around the globe and throughout history has regarded this group of stars as representative of an individual of considerable physical prowess, such as a hunter or a warrior.

Orion is not only a constellation of great beauty to the naked eye, but also holds within its boundaries a treasure trove of objects that can be enjoyed with a variety of optical instruments ranging from binoculars to medium aperture telescopes. So bundle yourselves up on a clear winter night and go out to savor what is perhaps the best of all the “star pictures” anywhere in the heavens.

Elsewhere in the sky: The planet Venus blazes brilliantly to the west for nearly three hours after sunset throughout February.

The planet Mars shines prominently above and to the left of Venus and maintains a roughly constant angular separation from the much brighter Venus during February.

The planet Jupiter rises about midnight and can be seen as a bright yellowish-white object to the northwest of the fainter bluish Virgo star Spica.

The planet Saturn currently rises about 3 a.m. and is easily found as a bright golden-hued object glowing on the Scorpius-Sagittarius border.

The planet Mercury is too close to the sun to be easily seen in February.

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