Orion the Hunter: Ghost of the summer dawn

Star chart showing Orion the Hunter with light purple glow near the horizon.
In late July or early August, the mighty constellation Orion the Hunter returns to the east before dawn. As can be seen, the Hunter rises on his side, with his 3 prominent Belt stars pointing straight up.

Orion the Hunter returns

Want to see the return of Orion? In late July and early August, look eastward as darkness gives way to morning dawn. Orion the Hunter is, notably, one of the sky’s most easy-to-spot constellations. In this case, Orion always passes behind the sun in Northern Hemisphere spring. By June, Orion is gone from our sky. But then, at this time of year, Orion returns, ascending once more in the east before sunrise. The Hunter rises on his side, with his three Belt stars – Mintaka, Alnitak and Alnilam – pointing upward. Indeed, it’s a stirring sight, and one you can look forward to for all the years of your life.

Furthermore, it’s why Orion has been called the ghost of the shimmering summer dawn.

From the Northern Hemisphere, Orion appears in winter as a mighty constellation arcing across the south during the evening hours. Thus, many people see Orion and notice this distinctive, large and bright pattern of stars. In contrast, from the Southern Hemisphere, Orion arcs high across the sky – closer to overhead – around December and January. And, at this time of year (late July and early August), Orion is up in the east before sunrise on Southern Hemisphere winter mornings.

Want a view of Orion from your location? Try Stellarium.

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Bright stars of Orion seen to the side and over a round dark hill.
The constellation Orion rises in the morning dawn in early August. Image via Flickr user Michael C. Rael.
A lightening sky, with the stars of Orion, Taurus, and Auriga labeled.
View larger. | Matthew Chin captured this image of Orion rising before the sun on July 26, 2014, from Hong Kong.

How can you be sure it’s Orion?

If you’re new to stargazing, the night sky with its plethora of stars can be bewildering. On the positive side, the good news is that the stars stay “fixed” relative to each other. If you’re not sure the pattern you’re seeing is Orion, watch for the star Aldebaran in the constellation Taurus the Bull. In a dark sky, you can see a V-shaped pattern of stars around Aldebaran. This pattern represents the Bull’s face. Aldebaran, likewise, represents the Bull’s fiery eye.

In skylore, Orion is said to be holding up a great shield … fending off the charging Bull. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine when you look eastward before sunup at this time of year, or anytime you spot Orion.

Orion will soon be up by midnight, then 10 p.m. … and by December you’ll find it rising in early evening. There’s nothing unusual about Orion’s shift from the predawn to the evening sky, however. This constellation is simply following the westward shift of all the stars, caused by Earth’s orbit around the sun. In fact, as we orbit the sun, our night sky points toward an ever-changing panorama of the Milky Way galaxy. Overall, our orbit causes all the stars to rise approximately four minutes earlier each day.

Star chart showing Orion and Taurus in the east before dawn in late summer.
How can you tell the stars you’re seeing are Orion? In short, watch for Orion’s 3 medium-bright “Belt” stars, pointing upward from the eastern horizon on late July and early August mornings. Also, notice the V-shaped pattern above Orion in the sky. That pattern is the Face of Taurus the Bull. Likewise, Orion’s Belt points to Aldebaran, the brightest star in the Bull’s Face.
Colorful ink paintings of 3 smiling Asian gods in flowing robes.
In Chinese tradition, the 3 belt stars of Orion represent 3 gods. Image via Earth Science Picture of the Day.

Ghost of the shimmering summer dawn

A poem by Sophia C. Prentice, published in the magazine Popular Astronomy in April 1924, memorialized Orion’s early morning return.

Across the winter sky by night
Orion proudly strides;
The rising moon in silver state
His splendor scarcely hides;
His jeweled belt, his glittering sword,
In brilliancy combine,
Great Sirius and Procyon,
His loyal followers shine,
The Book of books records his name,
Of him the poets write;
From nursery windows, children’s eyes
Greet him with gay delight.

The soft breeze stirs to greet the dawn,
The summer stars grow dim,
When lo, a mystic shape appears
Above the Ocean’s rim.
The form so faintly shining there
No royalty can boast,
Yet with a thrill my heart proclaims,
‘It is Orion’s ghost!”

Alone and pale he trembles there
A moment and is gone,
While radiant couriers of the sun
Announce the coming morn.

Orion, greatest of the tribe
That pace the starry heights.
Ghost of the shimmering summer dawn,
King of the winter nights!

Bottom line: The return of Orion and Taurus to your predawn sky happens around late July or early August every year. In the Northern Hemisphere, Orion is sometimes called the ghost of the shimmering summer dawn. That name comes from a 1924 poem by Sophia C. Prentice.

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July 28, 2022

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