It's a new month, which means a new featured constellation. With the coming of January and the depth of Winter, the king of the winter sky, Orion, takes the celestial stage, reigning supreme over the other, dimmer, constellations.
For anyone, even a beginning astronomer, Orion should be recognizable because of both its very human-looking shape and extreme brightness (no main star in Orion is below +2.1 magnitude). To find Orion, look in the Southeast sky come nightfall. It is truly impossible to miss thanks to all the bright stars. Orion is so bright that it's one of the few constellations whose main shape can be seen in its entirety except in all but the brightest of light domes. Here in Northeast Ohio, the dry air helps in the transparency, too.
Besides being quite a remarkable constellation in its own right, Orion offers some major telescopic treasures, too.
First up, right below the belt, lies the sword of Orion, a series of stars with a cloudy patch in the center. In reality, that cloud s no cloud, but the Great Orion Nebula, the brightest (by a large margin) nebula visible in the entire sky. Turning a telescope (the bigger the better) on the nebula will reveal intricate patterns of glowing nebulosity and dark dust formations, of course, the darker the sky, the more you will see. If you have a really big scope (12” or up) and a dark sky, you may even see hints of the nebula's famous red color. Not done, turn your telescope on the central star, crank up the power, and see the single star split into four, the Trapezium. If you have a big scope, crank up the power as high as you can and see how many more stars you can see as there are four more in addition to the four easy ones in the Trapezium. My record is 6. Moving up from the Great Nebula, you may see a faint smudge above it, which is the appropriately-named Running Man Nebula.
Moving up to the lowest belt star, kick the power back down to see the Flame Nebula, located just above the star itself. If your scope is big enough and sky dark enough, you should see a diffuse nebular glow. This area is also where the famously photogenic Horsehead Nebula is located, but you can forget about seeing this one in Ohio.
Now, onto double stars.
First up, after the aforementioned Trapezium, there is another quadruple star in Orion, the bright one just below the lowest of the belt stars. Unlike the Trapezium, though, all 4 are easily seen in small telescopes. Staying in the belt, the highest star is also an easy double in terms of split, but perhaps a bit difficult to see as the companion is, comparatively, very dim. Moving down to Rigel, the brightest star in Orion, you come to a very difficult double. The split is only 10 arc seconds and the magnitude difference is a whopping 7 degrees of brightness. Get the big scope, crank up the power, and hope for a steady sky to split this one cleanly.
As a last star of note, Betelgeuse, Orion's distinct red shoulder star, is both the largest star within 1,000 light years and is a variable, too. This may come in handy if you're ever lucky enough to get on some TV quiz show.
In all, Orion, king of the winter sky, is quite a constellation for both naked eye and telescopic astronomers.
Since astronomy is a weather-allowing pursuit, be sure to keep an eye on the Cleveland weather forecast and, for hour-by-hour cloud predictions, the Cleveland Clear Sky Clock. Live somewhere else? Find a clock and see if it will be clear near you.
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Bodzash Photography & Astronomy