Orion is the master of the winter skies. He
lords over the heavens from late fall to early spring, with his hunting dog Sirius
trailing at his feet.
Like all myths borrowed from several sources over a great length of
time, the Greek stories offer many variations. Generally speaking,
Orion was known as the "dweller of the mountain", and was famous for
his prowess both as a hunter and as a lover. But when he boasted that
he would eventually rid the earth of all the wild animals, his doom
may have been sealed.
The mythic tales of Orion go as far back as the Hittites, who flourished
from the Second Millenium BC to around 1200 BC.
One story from this culture gives an interesting account of Orion's death.
Here he is called Aqhat, and was a handsome and famous hunter. The
Battle-Goddess Anat fell in love with Aqhat, but when he refused to lend
her his bow, she sent another man to steal it. This chap bungled the job,
and wound up killing Aqhat and dropping the bow into the sea. This is said
to explain the astronomical fact that Orion and the Bow (an older version
of the constellation) drops below the horizon for two months every spring.
It might have been the Earth Goddess herself who sent the deadly scorpion
to Orion. Or possibly Apollo, concerned that Orion had designs on his
sister, Artemis. Thus Apollo may have told the Earth Goddess of Orion's
boast. In any case, it seems clear that it was the Earth Goddess who
sent the scorpion on its mission.
Some stories have the scorpion killing Orion with its sting. However the general
consensus is that he engaged the scorpion in battle but quickly realised its armour
was impervious to any mortal's attack. Orion then jumped into the sea and
swam toward Delos. But Apollo had witnessed Orion's struggle with the scorpion
and would not let him escape so easily. He challenged his sister Artemis, who was an
excellent shot, if she could hit that small black object far away in the sea, the
head -- he told her -- of an infamous and treacherous villan. Artemis struck the
object with her first shot. She then swam out to retrieve her victim's corpse,
and discovered she had killed Orion. Artemis implored the gods to restore his life,
but Zeus objected. So she put Orion's image in the heavens.
In his eternal hunting, Orion is careful to keep well ahead of the scorpion. In fact
Orion has disappeared over the horizon by the time Scorpio rises in the east,
as it becomes his turn to rule the evening sky.
Finding Orion should be no problem. Its stars
are some of the most familiar in all the heavens. Question: can you name
the three stars that make up Orion's Belt. (Answer below.)
Above the belt, slightly to the left, is Betelgeuse, alpha Orionis.
As the brightest star in Orion, Rigel ranks as the seventh brightest
star in all the heavens, just behind Capella. It is a visual binary; its
companion is much fainter, but quite visible if you are persistent enough
(PA 202º, 9.4").
Betelgeuse, the right arm of Orion (or "armpit" as the name suggests),
glows with a dull red. Although labelled alpha Orionis, it is less
bright than beta Orionis (Rigel), in the opposite corner of the
constellation, to the southwest. Yet if slightly less bright, it is much
larger, estimated at around 250 Suns. If one were to replace our Sun with
Betelgeuse, its size would completely engulf the Earth and extend as
far as Mars.
The other corners of the constellation are formed by Bellatrix (gamma
Orionis) and Saiph (kappa Orionis). It was once thought that all
women born under the sign of Bellatrix would be fortunate and have the gift of
speech. The star's name is often translated as Female Warrior or Amazon,
and another name sometimes seen is "Amazon Star".
The constellation's main feature is of course the three stars which form
the "belt" across the middle of Orion: from west to east Mintaka,
Alnilam, and Alnitak. Even the Bible makes reference to this
famous group. God, while pointing out how all-powerful he was, is
purported to have asked Job if he (Job) was able to "loose the bands
of Orion" (Job 38.31).
The last of these stars is also known as zeta Orionis, and is a
well known triple star system. The primary is a blue-white star, and its
companion (165º, 2.3") is a dull red. Close by, just to the south,
is the renowned Horsehead Nebula, a so-called dark nebula that is not
visible in scopes but quite spectacular in long-exposure photographs.
Binary stars in Orion:
[NOTE: This section has been updated in the Binocular Section; see the link below]
There are many double stars in this constellation visible in small
telescopes. Below are several selected from a wide list.
Beta Orionis (Rigel) has a 10.4 visual magnitude companion at 202º
and a wide 9.5" separation. This is a fixed system.
Lambda Orionis (between Betelgeuse and Bellatrix) is another fixed
binary, with a 5.5 companion at PA 43º and 4.4" away.
Theta1 is a complex system of fixed stars. The four brightest form The Trapezium, an outstanding multiple system for small telescopes. AB is at a position angle of 32º and separation 8.8", AC: PA 132º, 12.7", and AD: PA 96º, 21.5".
Theta2 is also a fine binary, a triple system to the southeast of The Trapezium. Component B is a binocular object: 6.4 magnitude at a position angle of 92º and separation 52.5". Component C (8.5) is even wider: PA 98º and separation 128.72".
Sigma Orionis is one of the few orbiting binaries found in Orion. Component B has an orbit of 158 years and is one of the few components that traces a not-quite-perfect circle. That's to say, we see it nearly face on, as a wheel spinning around its hub.
The separation never changes much from its current distance of only 0.2". Its 2000.0 position angle is 132º.
Much easier to resolve is component E, with a visual magnitude of 6.7, this is a binocular object at a position angle of 61º and separtion of 42".
Zeta Orionis (1.9, 4.0) has a very slow orbit of 1509 years, and is currently at 165º
and 2.3" separation.
Variable stars in Orion:
A dozen stars in this constellation are visible in small scopes,
but most of them are of the EA type of eclipsing binaries, which change
very little. These include two stars of the Trapezium (theta 1A and
EA variables are old stars, nearing the end of their evolutionary
process. The companion has grown to the size of a subgiant, perhaps
equal in size to its primary. But their luminosities are quite
different; thus, as the dimmer companion revolves around its primary,
variations in the total brightness occur.
The maximum brightness occurs of course when the two are not eclipsed,
with each one adding its luminosity to the total output. Two minima also
occur: the principal minimum is when the companion blocks out the primary;
while a secondary minimum occurs when the companion is eclipsed by the primary.
The only interesting Mira-type regular variable is U Orionis, which
usually has a brightness of 4.8 but every 368.3 days it drops down to
13. In 2000 the minimum is scheduled to occur on 5 December.
Deep Sky Objects in Orion:
M42, The Orion Nebula is perhaps the most photographed deep sky
object in the heavens, a vast nebula of gas and dust exquisitely lit by
This is a celestial nursery; soon (that's to say, in several hundred
million years) young stars will appear from this wealth of cosmic matter.
M43 (NGC 1982) is a detached part of the Orion Nebula, with a
ninth magnitude central star. A dark lane of gas separates M43 from M42,
although the two are actually part of the same vast cloud.
Inside the nebula is the fascinating four-star system known as The
Trapezium: theta 1A, 1B, 1C, and 1D - four stars held together by common
gravity (actually at least two other stars are part of this complex
system.) They are visible in medium sized telescopes and, with the
nebula, form one of the most beautiful binary systems in the heavens.
M78 (NGC 2068) is a faint reflection nebula NE of Alnitak (zeta
Ori), that looks best in long-exposure photographs.
The Horsehead Nebula is an intriguing and devilishly difficult dark nebula found just between zeta Orionis and sigma Orionis, visible only in long-exposure photographs.
For a more detailed appreciation of Orion, visit the Binocular Section.
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