I have a confession. After nearly 20 years as a naturalist, I have never taken an astronomy class. It’s not that I don’t enjoy looking at the stars, it’s just that I get overwhelmed trying to figure out what’s what. Despite this glaring deficiency, there are a few stellar objects that I have learned to recognize, and year after year, I look forward to seeing some of my favorites.
The winter nights are long this time of year, starting at 14 hours and 39 minutes on the solstice (Dec. 21), and growing slowly shorter at an approximate rate of 1 minute every 2-3 days. With such long, cold nights, being able to appreciate their beauty is almost like a survival mechanism. Since we can’t beat ‘em, we might as well enjoy them. Or something like that.
My favorite winter constellation is the easily recognizable Orion. Seeing the familiar three stars of the hunter’s belt, surrounded by the trapezoidal shaped upper and lower body fills me with a sense of home and familiarity. Most people can pick out the shape of the giant hunter, followed through the sky by his faithful hunting dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor. Stories about the legendary hunter abound, with some claiming that he was finally killed by Scorpius, which explains why the constellation of the giant scorpion rises after Orion has set, so that he can stay far away from the scorpion that killed him.
Orion is also home to two of the night’s brightest stars, Rigel, the seventh brightest star in the sky (approximately 60,000 times more luminous than the sun) and Betelgeuse, a red giant that has a diameter as large as the Earth’s entire orbit! Betelgeuse, located on Orion’s right shoulder, is also known as the Valentine’s Star, because it reaches its highest point above the horizon on Valentine’s Day.
The Great Nebula
Orion is the site of another interesting phenomenon, that it is home to one of the few nebulas that are visible with the naked eye. The nebula, known as the Great Nebula, is located on Orion’s “skirt,” about halfway down the faintly visible “sword,” and it can be seen more clearly with a stabilized pair of binoculars or an amateur telescope. Its brightness is attributed to a cluster of hot, newborn stars near its center known as the Trapezium.
Once described by astronomer and author Stephen James O’Meara as “angel’s breath against a frosted sky,” the Great Nebula, also known as the Orion Nebula, looks like a little like a Georgia O’Keefe flower lighting up the night sky. Approximately 1,300 light-years from Earth, this enormous cloud of gas and dust is giving birth to literally thousands of stars. Some astronomers have suggested that a young star cluster within it might even have a black hole at its center. This nursery of stars, most younger than 10,000 years old, is a sight worthy of taking the time to view.
But, back to my initial confession. Despite my lack of formal astronomical knowledge, I find myself intrigued and astounded each time I do make a foray into the world of stars and stellar phenomena. Even within the familiar constellation Orion, which I remember watching from the first early days when I was allowed out at night, there is much to learn about and explore. It doesn’t seem quite so overwhelming if you learn about them one at a time.
Jaymee Squires is the director of graduate programs at Walking Mountains Science Center. Squires would like to thank John Briggs for sharing some great information and helping to make astronomy come alive again. The local chapter of the Astronomical Society, led by Briggs, meets the third Thursday of every month at Walking Mountains Science Center and all are welcome. Check out our website for more information, www.walkingmountains.org.