Orion is one of the most recognizable constellations in the winter sky.
The easiest way to find Orion is to go outside in the evening this winter and look to the south east. You are looking for three bright stars close together in almost a straight line. These three stars represent Orion’s belt. The two bright stars to the north are his shoulders and the two to the south are his feet.
Orion the Hunter could walk on water because he was the son of the sea-god Poseidon. After many adventures Orion walked to the island of Crete where he hunted with the goddess Artemis. During the hunt, he threatened to kill every beast on Earth. But Mother Earth objected and sent a giant scorpion to kill him. After Orion’s death, Zeus placed him among the constellations adding the Scorpion as well, to commemorate the hero’s death.
One of the show pieces of Orion is the Great Nebula. To find it first locate Orion’s Belt, which contains the row of three bright stars. Next, look below his belt for a vertical row of fainter stars marking the Hunter’s Sword. Look for the fuzzy “star” in the middle of the Sword. That’s the Orion Nebula. Binoculars will give you a better view.
The Orion Nebula is a stellar nursery where new stars are being born. Stars form when clumps of hydrogen and other gases contract under their own gravity. As the gas collapses, the central clump grows stronger and the gas heats to extreme temperatures. When the temperature gets high enough, nuclear fusion ignites the gas to form a star. The star is ‘born’ when it begins to emit enough radiative energy to halt it’s gravitational collapse. Detailed observations have revealed approximately 700 stars in various stages of formation within this nebula.
The Pleiades – The Seven Sisters
Start by looking for the three stars in a diagonal row that make up Orion’s belt. Draw an imaginary line between those stars up and to the right. Continue your line, and you should come to a group of stars that looks like the letter “V”. That is the face of Taurus – The Bull. A little to the right of Taurus is a small clump of stars. They are the Pleiades, looking almost like a tiny dipper. Once again binoculars will give you a better view.
The Pleiades were the seven daughters of Atlas and the sea-nymph Pleione. After Atlas was forced to carry the heavens on his shoulders, Orion began to pursue all of the Pleiades. To comfort their father, Zeus transformed them first into doves, and then into stars. The constellation of Orion is said to still pursue The Pleiades across the night sky.
The Pleiades is an open star cluster containing hot middle-aged stars. It is one of the nearest star clusters to Earth. Probably formed from a nebula similar to the Orion Nebula around 100 million years ago, the cluster is dominated by hot blue and extremely luminous stars.
The faint reflection nebulosity around the brightest stars was at first thought to be left over from the formation of the cluster, but is now known to be an unrelated dust cloud in interstellar space, through which the stars are currently passing. Astronomers estimate that the cluster will survive for about another 250 million years, after which it’s stars will disperse.
Getting the best view
Discovering a dark place shouldn’t be too difficult on the Glenlivet Estate. I find my garden is as good a place as any. Switch off any outdoor lights and allow your eyes to acclimatise to the dark. In the dark your sensitive night time black and white vision will allow to you see more in the night sky, but it does take a while to kick in.
Avoid looking directly at any visible lighting. That will destroy your night vision almost instantly and you will have to wait another ten minutes before your dark adapted eyes are beginning to work again.
Because you are using your night vision you will only be seeing in black and white so don’t expect to see the Orion Nebula in full colour. Colour images can only be produced with long photographic exposures. Nevertheless witnessing the wonders of the night sky for yourself is an altogether different level of experience compared to admiring pictures by the Hubble space telescope from the comfort of your armchair.
Get out there and look up at our glorious dark skies!