With an eventful stargazing year behind and us teetering on the brink of 2014 wondering what it may have in store, we can plunge in with confidence knowing that the night sky promises to reveal no less than some of its most distinctive and exciting constellations to us over the next few months…

 

Any correlation? While we can never know for sure if the asterism on the right is some enigmatic celestial warning symbol we can certainly say that it makes an excellent signpost to the surrounding constellations. (Image credit:  Nick Parke/Stellarium)

Any correlation? While we can never know for sure if the asterism on the right is some enigmatic celestial warning symbol we can certainly say that it makes an excellent signpost to the surrounding constellations.
(Image credit: Nick Parke/Stellarium)

 

Ever seen this sign on your observational journey along the celestial highway? Yes, that was a purely rhetorical question, for at this time of year you’d practically have to keep your eyes tightly shut to avoid catching a glimpse of this wonderful dot-to-dot outline in the heavens above! No matter what depth of astronomical knowledge or interest we each may hold, there are undoubtedly few of us who would not recognise this star pattern as being somehow associated with the constellation name of “Orion”.

The star pattern of Orion, ‘the hunter’ has been long known for his striking pose in space, standing clearly in command of the winter constellations. This constellation’s claim to fame among his fellow star patterns is that not only does he parade that flashy and unmistakable ‘diamond-studded’ belt across the heavens, but he shows off some particularly colourful stellar gems as well. That eye-catching trio of apparently equidistantly-spaced stars comprising Orion’s belt go by the names Alnitak (left-most and lowest), Alnilam (centre), and Mintaka (right and uppermost).

1500 light year zoom: While these spectacular blue supergiant stars are referred to as the “The Three Marys” in Latin America and Spain, in Puerto Rico the phrase “Los Tres Reyes Magos” identifies them as ‘The Three Wise Men’ of Orion’s Belt. Credit: Astrowicht via Wikimedia Commons

1500 light year zoom: While these spectacular blue supergiant stars are referred to as the “The Three Marys” in Latin America and Spain, in Puerto Rico the phrase “Los Tres Reyes Magos” identifies them as ‘The Three Wise Men’ of Orion’s Belt.
Credit: Astrowicht via Wikimedia Commons

 

As if a jazzy stellar belt was not already enough to monopolise our attention, below it Orion further works his luminous magic by revealing a weapon to the stargazer whose gleam across light years of space guarantees our eyes roam no further afield in the night sky. This is a small sword whose broadening blade has custody of the magnificent Orion Nebula. This beautiful ‘flower-like’ star incubator reveals itself to eyes well-acclimatised to the dark as the lowermost point of light but one, down at the sword’s tip.

A name that rolls off the tongue when thinking about space: the famous Orion Nebula (M42), 1500 light years from Earth and our nearest stellar assembly line in the cosmos. Credit:  Ljubinko Jovanovic via Wikimedia Commons

A name that rolls off the tongue when thinking about space: the famous Orion Nebula (M42), 1500 light years from Earth and our nearest stellar assembly line in the cosmos.
(Image credit: Ljubinko Jovanovic via Wikimedia Commons)

 

While some star patterns sport only dim stars and lack readily discernible borders, the constellation of Orion emphatically defines his torso’s perimeter with a bold and charming multi-coloured near-rectangle of stars, each of which are worthy of examination in their own right.

“Beware of the giants”: Perhaps Orion should hang a placard around his neck bearing this legend for the unsuspecting stargazer, as a brood of them reside in the hunter’s celestial domain. Standing perhaps most noticeably among these stellar monsters or blue supergiant stars is a very bright Sun-dwarfing blue-white supergiant star called Rigel highlighting the hunter’s left foot, and the still larger Betelgeuse or “giant’s armpit”, a 900-Sun-diameter red supergiant star (in the target), which marks the base of Orion’s club-wielding arm. Credit: Cropped image: ESO, P. Kervella, Digitized Sky Survey 2 and A. Fujii

“Beware of the giants”: Perhaps Orion should hang a placard around his neck bearing this legend for the unsuspecting stargazer, as a brood of them reside in the hunter’s celestial domain. Standing perhaps most noticeably among these stellar monsters or blue supergiant stars is a very bright Sun-dwarfing blue-white supergiant star called Rigel highlighting the hunter’s left foot, and the still larger Betelgeuse or “giant’s armpit”, a 900-Sun-diameter red supergiant star (in the target), which marks the base of Orion’s club-wielding arm.
(Image credit: Cropped image: ESO, P. Kervella, Digitized Sky Survey 2 and A. Fujii)

 

Sometimes depicted with a shield and club while other times a bow and arrow, a distinctive upward curve of stars past the hunter’s outstretched left arm makes either weapon easy to imagine his wielding. In mythology Orion seemed to fall little short of the ultimate male, standing very tall, while also possessing great strength and good looks. As if that was not already enough to capture the hearts of the females, his father, the sea god Poseidon gifted him with the power to walk on water! Some animals placed as nearby constellations in the heavens also belonged to Orion, I wonder can you guess which? (If you’re in any doubt, no need to worry, we’ll check them out them on another day)

15th January 10pm: Starting at the horizon a vertical sweep reveals the star pattern Eridanus, connecting up with Orion, and above that, Capella, brightest star in Auriga highlighting our third constellation’s lofty position in the heavens.  Credit: Stellarium/Nick Parke

15th January 10pm: Starting at the horizon a vertical sweep reveals the star pattern Eridanus, connecting up with Orion, and above that, Capella, brightest star in Auriga highlighting our third constellation’s lofty position in the heavens.
(Image credit: Stellarium/Nick Parke)

 

With the celestial sphere divided into zones of grouped star patterns or constellation families, it should be no surprise to us to discover that the longest and most winding of the constellations, Eridanus (‘the winding river’) is a member of the ‘Heavenly Waters Family’ of constellations!

Starting in front of the hunter’s right foot (at the star Rigel), meandering westwards, then back south before disappearing below the horizon, Eridanus links the northern and southern celestial hemispheres at this time of year. While star patterns like Orion are at one end of the spectrum in terms of simplicity in locating, Eridanus is not for the faint-hearted observer as it rewards southern latitude stargazers only with its brightest and in fact only bright star, Achernar meaning “end of the river”.

While looking more like the stick figure drawing of a tombstone in the night sky than anything else, the constellation of Auriga actually represents a vehicleless driver, or to be exact, a chariotless charioteer. The only clue to his occupation is that constellation illustrations of this character often show him holding the reigns of the chariot in his other hand. According to myth Auriga, born by the Earth itself, is identified with Erichthonius who learned the skills of horsemanship. His crowning triumph was to build a splendid four-horse chariot which earned the admiration of the gods and preceded his becoming king of Athens.

When a standard run-of-the-mill-type star dies the explosion is called a nova. Much larger stars, of which there are many in space, make a far more dramatic exit from the stellar stage. These are what we call supernova explosions. While the star in question is dead and gone for sure, the super-hot material blasted out into space will continue to leave a heat signature emitting radiation for some considerable time. This makes the detecting and subsequent locating of a star’s former presence in space less difficult than we might first imagine. Just to the right of ‘the goat star’, Capella are two ‘SNR’s (or supernova remnants.) SNR HB-9 is the not-so-catchy name tag attached to the lower of the two.

They went out with a bang: This image was taken using X-Ray emissions from space, showing us the shape and size of any significant sources of radiation within this small patch of sky in the constellation of Auriga. While the red background indicates the presence of low X-Ray energy always present throughout the Universe, the three yellow patches reveal the sources of higher energy X-Ray emissions, in this case the star Capella (left) and two large stellar remnants above and just right of it. These mark the celestial graves of once massive stars.   Credit:  Max Planck Institut fur Extraterrestrische Physik (MPE)

They went out with a bang: This image was taken using X-Ray emissions from space, showing us the shape and size of any significant sources of radiation within this small patch of sky in the constellation of Auriga. While the red background indicates the presence of low X-Ray energy always present throughout the Universe, the three yellow patches reveal the sources of higher energy X-Ray emissions, in this case the star Capella (left) and two large stellar remnants above and just right of it. These mark the celestial graves of once massive stars.
(Image credit: Max Planck Institut fur Extraterrestrische Physik (MPE))

 

Finally, before heading back indoors don’t forget to indulge in a good look at Jupiter, that apparently “very bright star” still in prime position in the heavens, above and a little left of orangey Betelgeuse.

So as you look above to observe the great sights of the night sky in January, happy hunting and enjoy your interstellar voyage!

(Article by Nick Park, Education Support Officer)