Mankind has always been on a never-ending quest to expand his existence into places unknown and beyond. Deeply fascinated by the celestial objects, modern astronomy has ventured out to unravel great mysteries of space. Amidst all that the sky beholds, we have the Orion constellation. Taking you through a short journey into the constellation and the interesting facts associated with it.
Window to the Stellar Nursery
The images of the Orion Nebula, captured by The Hubble Space Telescope, in 2006, were the first of its kind. They opened new possibilities in research about the birth and life of stars. This is because each image contained over thousands of stars in different stages of their lives.
With the onset of winters, star-watching and star-gazing gain popularity and that is when the night sky is studded with some of the brightest stars and beautiful constellations. One of among them is the amazing and most commonly observed ‘Orion’ constellation. Its appearance in the night sky marks the arrival of winter. Its imitations and references have been found all over the world in ancient monuments and structures.
The Big Dipper is used as a reference to mark and locate other important stars surrounding it. Similarly, the Orion, which is easily recognizable in the winter night sky, provides a clue to the location the other objects of interest around it.
Here are some fascinating facts about this much-talked constellation that shall highlight both its awesome deep-seated beauty and the chamber of unexplored knowledge it carries. Once you get to know this, it is highly improbable for anyone to resist gazing up at the sky looking for this interesting stellar beauty.
◆ The constellation is abbreviated as Ori, and was named after a demigod hunter in Greek mythology. Ranked 26th in constellation size and with the area of approximately 595 square degrees, it is rightfully called the ‘Giant Hunter’.
◆ Orion can be seen from both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. In the Northern Hemisphere, the constellation can be seen from late autumn to early spring in the southwest night sky. In the Southern Hemisphere, Orion can be seen in the summer months, visible inverted in the southwest sky. In both cases, it is seen rising in the east and setting in the west.
◆ The best view of this spectacular constellation is said to be observed between latitudes 85 degrees and -75 degrees. Its right ascension is 5 hours, and declination is 5 degrees.
Main stars of Orion constellation
◆ The constellation contains two of the brightest stars, Betelgeuse and Rigel, and has a sum total of 81 stars. The main stars are: Betelgeuse (alpha orionis), Bellatrix (Gamma Orionis), Alnitak (Zeta Orionis), Alnilam (Epsilon Orionis), Mintaka (Delta Ori), Saiph (Kappa Orionis), Rigel (Beta Orionis). Of these, Alnilam, Mintaka, and Alnitak form the Orion’s belt.
◆ The red supergiant Betelgeuse, also called Alpha Orionis, is an exception among the blue supergiants which is found on the Orion’s shoulder. Famed as the largest star in the constellation, it is about 500 light years from Earth, and it has 1,000 times the radius of the Sun.
◆ The brightest star in the Orion constellation is Rigel. It is also called Beta Orionis and is said to be the seventh brightest star in the sky. The apparent visual magnitude of Rigel is 0.18. It is about 773 light years away from Earth. Its brightness is 40,000 times that of the Sun, and emits 100,000 times the energy produced by the Sun.
◆ Orion is noted to have three Messier objects till date. They are: Messier 42 (M42, NGC 1976, Orion Nebula), Messier 43 (M43, NGC 1982, De Mairan’s Nebula), and Messier 78 (M78, NGC 2068). The middle “star” in Orion’s sword is actually The Orion Nebula―a dust of hydrogen, helium, and ionized gases.
◆ The Horsehead Nebula, or Barnard 33, is a dark nebula in the Orion. It can be seen to the south of Alnitak, in the bright emission nebula IC 434. The very first records were the work of an Scottish astronomer Williamina Fleming, in 1888. The Horsehead Nebula is about 1,500 light years away from the Earth. The name Horsehead was given due to the shape formed by the dark clouds of dust and gases that resemble the shape of the head of a horse when seen from the Earth.
Flame and Horsehead nebula
◆ The Flame Nebula is another emission nebula in the Orion. The electrons in superactive ultraviolet light from Alnitak enters the Flame and gets struck away from the hydrogen clouds inside it.
◆ Barnard’s Loop, or the Smile of Orion, is an emission nebula and a part of Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. Named after E.E. Barnard, its origin is traced back to a supernova explosion that occurred more than 2 million years ago. 1,600 light years away from Earth, its own radius is believed to be 150 light years. The Orion Nebula seems to be the center of this arc, and the stars from the nebula are said to ionize the arc.
The exploration into this spectacular constellation continues and ‘The Hunter’ never ceases to amaze us with the immense expanse of secrets it holds; just like life itself. As Anthony Marra says in The Constellation of Vital Phenomena, “Life: a constellation of vital phenomena―organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” The Orion exhibits and teaches us all of these and much more.