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White TigerOrion, the Hunter

In the winter skies, the most prominent pattern of stars is known to us as Orion. This is rightfully so, as this constellation contains more bright stars than any of the other 87, and includes brilliant blue-white Rigel, seventh brightest of all stars, and blood-red Betelgeuse. These mark the corners of a near-rectangle (with Bellatrix and Saiph), which frames an arrow-straight line of the three stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. Many cultures since time began have viewed these stars as a giant hero, and consequently there are many different stories from around the globe. The Greeks have two well-known legends about Orion's fate. One concerns his hunting prowess, such that he had no fear of any beast. When he threatened to kill every one of the animals, Gaia, Goddess of the Earth became furious and commanded a scorpion to sting Orion. The consequence of this duel is that Orion and Scorpius are never seen in the sky at the same time, one setting in the west as the other rises in the east.

The other Greek story involves Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, who fell madly in love with the strong and handsome Orion. When she continued to neglect her hunting duties, her brother Apollo tricked her into shooting an arrow at a dark item in the ocean to show her skill. The target, however, was Orion swimming, and Diana's aim was perfect and the hero was killed. In her grief, Diana pleaded with Zeus to place Orion in the sky, together with his hunting dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor, so that he would never be forgotten.

The Chinese asterism corresponding to Orion is Tsan, Supreme Commander of the defenders of the villages. Nomadic barbarians periodically plundered the food supplies of the farmers during the winter. To guard against such raids, each autumn the people would choose a leader to organize their protection. In the ancient Chinese hierarchy of the heavens, Tsan is in the sixth and seventh houses of the White Tiger.


A dusty bright nebula contrasts dramatically with a dusty dark nebula in this Hubble Space Telescope image. NGC 1999 shines by reflecting light from the nearby embedded variable star V380 Orionis, seen here just left of center. Unlike emission nebulae, whose reddish glow comes from excited atoms of gas, reflection nebulae have a bluish cast as their interstellar dust grains preferentially reflect blue starlight. Extending right of center, the ominous dark nebula is a condensation of cold molecular gas and dust so dense that it blocks light. It lies in front of the bright nebula, silhouetted against the ghostly nebular glow. New stars will likely form within the dark cloud, called a Bok globule, as self-gravity continues to compress its dense gas and dust. NGC 1999 lies about 1500 light-years away in the constellation Orion, about one degree south of the well known Orion nebula, M42. Image Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI)

You could spend most of your available observing hours during winter enjoying the objects in Orion. There are three Messier objects, M42 (the Great Nebula) and M43, and M78, a reflection nebula well worth investigating. The Horsehead Nebula is a challenge for amateur telescopes. There are also a number of multiple stars for study, including the famous Trapezium in the Orion Nebula. There are at least seven stars in this system. Orion is home to the late-October Orionid meteor shower, the radiant lying between Betelgeuse and the foot of the twin Castor.

And there is Betelgeuse (Beetle Juice in popular lingo). Betelgeuse is so huge that, if it replaced the Sun at the center of our Solar System, its outer atmosphere would extend past the orbit of Jupiter. This star pulsates irregularly, its magnitude ranging from 0.4 to about 1.2.

Hubble Space Telescope / NASA image

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