Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Giant Looms at Night

Giant Looms at Night
by Dave Adalian

An ancient giant dwells in winter’s night sky, a creature old as myth.

As long as man has recognized this nocturnal titan in the stars we have called him The Hunter. Ancient Greeks first gave him the name we use today--Orion, literally “mountain man.” Even then he was already older than the hills.

Sumerian and Babylonian legends call the giant Enkidu, a tamed wild-man companion of fabled Gilgamesh. Doubtless the myth carries back to a time the stars of Orion marked a stone-age hunter-god whose name is now long forgotten.

This month Orion dominates the sky deep into the night. Already above the eastern horizon by sunset, the Hunter sits high, directly southeast by half past seven.

Stargazers easily recognize the constellation’s lopsided rectangle of bright stars. It surrounds a short line of three brilliant, white suns--the Belt of Orion. Together they form a butterfly or bow-tie shape.

Most striking of Orion’s suns is famous Betelgeuse, the bright red-giant that marks the Hunter’s eastern shoulder. At the western shoulder shines Bellatrix, and diagonally across from it Saiph shows as the western foot.

Orion’s other foot is the white jewel Rigel. Draw an imaginary line from Rigel through Betelgeuse and it goes through the dim stars of Orion’s raised club in his right hand before passing beside Saturn in nearby Gemini.

A long arc of dim stars west of Bellatrix shields Orion from Taurus the Bull. The bull stands between him and the object of his desire, Merope, brightest of the Seven Sisters in the Pleiades.

Another imaginary line drawn through Orion’s Belt from west to east passes next to Sirius. This brilliant white diamond at the shoulder of Canis Major shines brightest of all the stars seen from Earth.

Another cluster of what looks like three stars in a row lies just south of the belt. Faint fuzziness around the middle star betrays its true form: this is the Great Orion Nebula. Visible even to the naked eye, in the telescope it becomes a specter with writhing tendrils edged by hints of green and red. It is a wonder in binoculars, too.

Orion reaches his highest near ten o’clock and stands due south. From there he drops into the west to set in the cold, still hours before dawn. As he does, Scorpius, his mortal enemy who may never share Orion’s sky, rises in the east just before the Sun.


This column originally appeared in the Visalia (Calif.) Times-Delta on Jan. 13, 2004.