Orion the Hunter is easy to spot in January

Tonight look for the constellation Orion the Hunter. It’s a constant companion on winter evenings in the Northern Hemisphere, and on summer nights in the Southern Hemisphere. Plus, it’s probably the easiest constellation to spot thanks to its distinctive Belt. Orion’s Belt consists of three medium-bright stars in a short, straight row at the Hunter’s waistline. So if you see any three equally bright stars in a row this evening, you’re probably looking at Orion. Do you want to be sure? There are two even brighter stars – one reddish and the other blue – on either side of the Belt stars.

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Orion the Hunter: Star chart with labeled dots for stars and light blue lines tracing the constellation Orion. It looks like a hourglass.
If you want to learn just one constellation … this is a good one! And it’s very easy constellation to spot. Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere see Orion the Hunter arcing across the southern sky on January evenings. Southern Hemisphere? Turn this chart upside-down, and look in your northern sky. To see a precise view from your location, try Stellarium Online.

When to look for Orion

As seen from mid-northern latitudes, you’ll find Orion in the southeast in the early evening and shining high in the south by mid-to-late evening (around 9 to 10 p.m. local time, the time on your clock wherever you live). If you live at temperate latitudes south of the equator, you’ll see Orion high in your northern sky around that same hour.

Orion, with a fuzzy red semicircular nebula looping through it, over a campfire.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Amr Abdulwahab created this composite image of the constellation Orion the Hunter on January 1, 2023, in H-alpha. That wavelength explains why you can see the great red loop around Orion known as Barnard’s Loop. Amr wrote: “Orion is a prominent constellation located on the celestial equator and visible throughout the world. It is one of the oldest and most recognizable constellations, with its 3 main stars forming a distinctive ‘belt’ shape. These stars are named Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. The constellation also features several bright stars, including Betelgeuse and Rigel, as well as the Orion Nebula, a bright cloud of gas and dust where new stars are forming.” Thank you, Amr!

What to look for in Orion the Hunter

First, look for the two brightest stars in Orion: Betelgeuse and Rigel. Rigel’s distance is approximately 860 light-years. However, the distance to Betelgeuse has been harder for scientists to determine. Its current estimate is about 724 light-years away, but uncertainties remain.

Betelgeuse dimmed for a while in late 2019, generating a fair amount of excitement, because Betelgeuse is a star on the brink of a supernova. However, the star has since returned to its normal brightness. So how bright does it look tonight?

Also, take a moment to trace the Belt of Orion and the Sword that hangs from his belt. If one of the stars in the Sword looks blurry to you, that’s because you’re actually seeing the Orion Nebula. And if you use binoculars or a telescope to look at the Orion Nebula, you’ll start to see some shape in the gas and dust cloud.

Bluish and pinkish nebula in center as a semicircular-shaped object, in scattered star field.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Eric Thurber in Boise, Idaho, captured this image of the Orion Nebula – Messier 42 – on January 2, 2023. Thank you, Eric!

Connections between the stars

While the stars of constellations often look like they should be physically related and gravitationally bound, they usually are not.

However, some of Orion’s most famous stars do have a connection. Several of the brightest stars in Orion are members of our local spiral arm, sometimes called the Orion Arm or sometimes the Orion Spur of the Milky Way. Our local spiral arm lies between the Sagittarius and Perseus Arms of the Milky Way.

Now consider those three prominent Belt stars. They appear fainter than Rigel or Betelgeuse, and, not surprisingly, they’re farther away. As a matter of fact, they’re all giant stars located in the Orion Arm. These stars’ names and approximate distances are Mintaka (1,200 light-years), Alnilam (2,000 light-years), and Alnitak (1,260 light-years). When you look at these three stars, know that you’re looking across vast space, and into our local arm of the Milky Way galaxy.

Labeled arcs of stars with lines pointing to important named stars and nebulae.
View larger. | Artist’s concept of part of the Milky Way galaxy. Our sun is located in the Orion Arm, or Orion Spur, of the Milky Way. Several bright stars in Orion, including Rigel, Betelgeuse, the three stars in Orion’s Belt, and the Orion Nebula, also reside in the Orion Arm. Image via R. Hurt/ Wikimedia Commons.

Bottom line: Orion the Hunter is one of the easiest constellations to identify thanks to its Belt, the three medium-bright stars in a short, straight row at his waist.

Why do stars seem brighter in winter?

January 19, 2024

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