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Gazing Deep into the Orion Constellation

by Dani Johnson

December 29, 2012

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Winter Stargazing

Even though we have finally officially entered winter and it's actually starting to feel like winter for a change, I still brave the cold to go outside and look at the sky for a while. Well...I actually layer 3 shirts under a nice wool-lined winter jacket and I put leggings on under my, I "brave" the cold by hiding from it. Nonetheless, I find myself outside pining for my old friends in the sky even on the coldest nights. During the Geminid Meteor Shower I even dragged my poor boyfriend and a few close relatives outside in ~30 degree weather with a sheet of cardboard and a blanket to lay on and stayed out there for at least an hour watching the "sky fall". It was absolutely amazing and worth every agonizing second. At least I live in the south, though, where even our most frigid nights are mild in comparison to most of the freezing cold nights elsewhere in the more northern parts of the US.

The Orion Constellation

During the meteor shower we drove 20 miles to get out of the city in order to escape the bright lights and it never ceases to amaze me when I am reminded just how many stars (and other things) we can see with the naked eye. I forget that the constellation Orion is much more than just a few bright stars that vaguely resemble a human form, there are actually 88 stars that we can see without aid. Looking in the direction of the constellation with the aid of a telescope, one can also see 3 Messier objects along with at least 8 other deep sky objects. The main stars that make up this constellation are Rigel, Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Mintaka, Alnilam, Alnitak, Saiph, Hatsya, and Meissa. There is also an annual meteor shower that we associate with the constellation because it appears that the meteors originate from its position in the sky. The shower happens roughly around October 16th-24th and one can see around 30 meteors per hour on a clear and moonless night.

Orion the Hunter

In one version of the story told by ancient Greek storytellers, Orion was the son of Euryale and Poseidon and could walk on water as a result. One day in Chios he was hanging out with a chick named Merope and got too drunk and assaulted her. She promptly told her dad, Oenopion, and he stabbed out Orion's eyes in retaliation and made him leave the country. I imagine this all went down in a room with a fireplace and that Oenopion used a hot fire pick, but I'm no expert. There was nothing left for poor Orion to do, being without eye sockets and all, so he went to a place called Lemnos to hit the streets and beg for help. Luckily, the great blacksmith Hephaestus ran a popular cult in this town and, for whatever reason, he decided to help out this dirty blind guy.

Hephaestus gave Orion a servant named Cedalion and Orion does the strangest thing...he carries Cedalion on his shoulders so he can lead him around like a horse! Orion and his horse-Servant gallop along the Eastern roads and I'll be darned if the sucker didn't come back with brand new eyes in his head! I wonder if he rode Cedalion's shoulders on the return trip... Since no one really knows what exactly happened, we can only assume that he found Helios and convinced the god of the Sun to heal him.

However he managed to get new eyes, he used them to come after Oenopion to get revenge but he wasn't exactly easy to fool. Oenopion expected Orion's return, and anger, so he had his own people hide him underground so that Orion couldn't find him. After a long and disappointing search, Orion finally decided to finally answer that invitation to go hunting with Artemis and her mom, Leto. He should have just stayed home that day...he wound up threatening to kill all of the animals on the Earth and really made mother Earth angry. She called upon her favorite giant scorpion and had him sting Orion so that its poison may consume his flesh. Artemis and her mom prayed to Zeus and asked that he place Orion among the stars so that they could remember his manliness. Zeus not only did this but he also tossed up the scorpion to keep him company...and to remind people of what happened.

Orion Head to Toe courtesy of NASA.From this image's angle, Orion's head is the star called Meissa at the far left.

Watch the skies!

I encourage you to put on a few layers of clothing and a coat or two and head outside into the frigid weather and look up at the sky for a few minutes after it gets dark. There are many beautiful things to help you forget about the cold.



by Dani Johnson

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