Orion: A Winter Wonderland

It’s that time of year again, babes. Throw on your warm clothes and shove some HotHands down your pants— we’re observing Orion! Winter is my favorite time of year for stargazing. The cold, crisp sky offers spectacular views of various objects, most famous of all being Orion the Hunter.

Photo by Rogelio Bernal Andreo. The dense nebulae of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex – http://deepskycolors.com/astro/JPEG/RBA_Orion_HeadToToes.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20793252

With your naked eye from most parts of New York City, you can easily spot the hourglass-shaped constellation. Its primary stars are Meissa (the head), Betelgeuse (right shoulder), Bellatrix (left shoulder), Saiph (right foot), and Rigel (left foot). Orion’s Belt consists of three main stars. From right to left: Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka.

Screenshot from Stellarium. The Orion constellation.

Betelgeuse, Orion’s red supergiant, was in the news in 2019 when the star noticeably dimmed. Once the 10th brightest star in the night sky, Betelgeuse took a hard dip down to being the 23rd brightest— a sharp decrease in luminosity— then back up to officially the 11th brightest. Is this a sign of a supernova to come? No, it was more of a burp.

Don’t be dismayed: Betelgeuse is predicted to go supernova within the next 100,000 years.

Photo by ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/E. O’Gorman/P. Kervella. Betelgeuse, captured by the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array known as ALMA.

Betelgeuse makes up one-third of the Winter Triangle, along with Procyon of Canis Minor and Sirius of Canis Major. Betelgeuse is also placed near the center of the Winter Hexagon.

Screenshot from Stellarium showing the Winter Triangle.

Rigel, 8th brightest in the night sky, is actually a multiple star system consisting of four stars. It makes up one-sixth of the Winter Hexagon. Other stars in this asterism are Aldebaran (Taurus), Capella (Auriga), Pollux (Gemini), Procyon (Canis Minor), and Sirius (Canis Major).

Screenshot from Stellarium showing Rigel.
Screenshot from Stellarium showing the Winter Hexagon.

But Orion is so much more than a constellation. Bordered by Taurus, Eridanus, Lepus, Monoceros, and Gemini, Orion is a smorgasbord of nebulae and clusters, including these famous objects: the Barnard Loop, Orion Nebula (M42), the Trapezium, Horsehead Nebula (Barnard 33), Flame Nebula (NGC 2024), Casper the Friendly Ghost Nebula (M78), and the Running Man Nebula— a combination of NGC 1973, NGC 1975, and NGC 1977— just to name a few!

Photo by ESO/Igor Chekalin. The Orion Nebula captured using the Wide Field Imager camera on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory, Chile.
Photo by ESO and Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgment: Davide De Martin. A visible light wide-field view of part of Orion’s Belt showing the region of sky around the Flame Nebula.

So be sure to look up this winter, with naked eyes, binoculars, or a telescope. With Orion, you’re never short on amazing objects.