There are 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union (IAU). A constellation is a group or pattern of stars used to represent or honor a figure. Many of the constellations don’t look anything at all like the figures they are supposed to represent.
The majority of these constellations were named by the ancient Greeks and Romans. In 1928, the IAU gave each constellation celestial coordinate boundaries, and any celestial object with certain coordinates would be found in its associated constellation.
The constellations of the winter contain many of the brightest stars in the sky, and, therefore, easiest to see even in the suburbs. The constellation known as Orion, the Hunter is one of the easiest to locate as it contains two very bright stars. This constellation is about 17 degrees tall by about 8 degrees wide.
To locate Orion, the Hunter, look about 40 degrees above the southern horizon about 7:30 P.M. You will see three stars in a slanting line which represents Orion’s belt. These three stars are equidistant apart, and are about the same brightness. The three stars are only about 3 degrees apart in total. Remember, if you hold your fist out at arm’s length, the distance between the lower and upper part of your fist measures about 10 degrees.
Surrounding Orion’s belt is an irregular rectangular shape of four bright stars. These four stars, as well as Orion’s belt, can easily be seen in the suburbs. The brightest star in this constellation is called Rigel. Its location is the lower right of the rectangle, and is blue-white in color. It is actually a binary or double star. Rigel represents the left knee cap of Orion, and is 900 light years away.
Diagonally opposite of Rigel or the star that represents the upper left of the rectangle of Orion is Betelgeuse. It is a red supergiant star. Betelgeuse is so large that if you were to replace our Sun with this star, it would stretch out beyond the orbit of Mars! Betelgeuse is 520 light years away, and represents the right shoulder of Orion.
The star Bellatrix represents the left shoulder of Orion while the star named Saiph represents his right knee cap.
Look at the middle star in the belt of Orion. About 4 degrees below this star are three stars pointing downward, and represent Orion’s sword. If you look at the middle star in his sword, you will see a hazy patch of glowing gas and dust. This is known as the Great Nebula of Orion also called Messier Number 42.
The Great Nebula of Orion can be seen with the unaided eye if you view it out in the country away from bright city lights. However, a pair of binoculars or a telescope at a low power will give you a much better view. The nebula is actually a stellar nursery where new stars are being born. The nebula appears as a glowing cloud of dust and gas. It is 1500 light years away.
SOME OTHER INTERESTING NOTES: Follow the belt of Orion downward, and the first bright star you come to is called Sirius. It is the brightest star in the night sky. This star is located in the constellation known as Canis Major or the Big Dog. Sirius is one of our closed stars outside of the Sun. It is only 8.8 light years away or about 51.7 trillion miles distant.
If you follow the belt of Orion in the opposite direction about the same distance or upward, the first bright star you come to is actually the planet Jupiter now located in the constellation of Taurus, the Bull.
Remember Daylight Savings Time begins on Sunday, March 10 at 2:00 A.M. Don’t forget to set your clocks forward by one hour. If you plan to view the constellation of Orion, the Hunter after this date look for it in the southwestern sky at about 8:30 P.M.