‘Orion star pattern is recognized by cultures world-wide’
Cold weather is settling in — heralded by the rising of Orion, one of the most recognized star patterns of the winter season.
Straddling the celestial equator, this mythological hunter is defined by some of the brightest stars in the sky, including the blue-white giant Rigel and the red super-giant Betelgeuse.
Orion is a rich hunting ground for observing nebulae and star clusters — all within reach of binoculars or a small telescope.
Within the boundaries of this constellation can be found a stellar nursery where new stars are born; young, short-lived giant stars that burn bright; and a bloated red giant in its final death throe.
The distinctive Orion star pattern is recognized by cultures world-wide in their mythology and story-telling.
In 1979, a small ivory tablet was found in a prehistoric cave in Germany. Etched in the sliver of mammoth tusk was a narrow-waist, man-like figure, that follows the outline of the stars in Orion, as they would have appeared at that time (ash deposits found next to the tablet have been dated between 32,500 and 38,000 years old).
The stars of Orion appear eternal as compared to our ephemeral lifespans, but change is inevitable.
The more massive stars will collapse as fuel dwindles and their cores lose the battle against gravity.
The cataclysmic event will scatter heavier elements across the cosmos, seeding vast clouds of hydrogen that will spawn a new generation of stars.
The proper motion of the stars will distort the familiar stick figure over time as old star patterns are lost and new ones arise (the European Space Agency has visualized the evolution of the Orion constellation 450,000 years into the future using the data from its Gaia billion-star, surveying satellite).
The Ojibwe or Chippewa people, native to the Great Lakes region, included the stars of Orion in their constellation of Biboonikeonini or the Wintermaker, the spirit that makes winter.
However, you won’t need to consult the stars this weekend to know that winter is coming.
Stay safe and join us Dec. 14 for our monthly Second Saturday Stars open house and for a retrospective on the New Horizons mission that traveled to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.
If the weather cooperates, we will be able to explore Orion and other celestial wonders.
Bill Cloutier is a volunteer at the John J. McCarthy Observatory in New Milford.