Orion the Hunter is easy to spot in January

Orion the Hunter: Star chart with labeled white dots for stars and light blue lines tracing the constellation.
If you want to learn just one constellation … this is a good one! It’s very easy to spot. We 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.

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. 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. If you see any three equally bright stars in a row this evening, you’re probably looking at Orion. Want to be sure? There are two even brighter stars – one reddish and the other blue – on either side of the Belt stars.

As seen from mid-northern latitudes, you’ll find Orion in the southeast at 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.

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Night photo: yellow beach with ruins on promontory and constellation Orion above the sea.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Kevan Hubbard captured this image of constellation Orion on January 17, 2022, from Tynemouth, Northumberland, England. He wrote: “Orion over the ruined Tynemouth Abbey, which amazingly isn’t floodlit thus preserving the skies above it and the environment in general, and the light to the left is a little fishing boat.” Thank you, Kevan!

What to look for in Orion the Hunter

Notice the two brightest stars in Orion, Betelgeuse and Rigel. Rigel’s distance is approximately 773 light-years. 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. How bright does it look tonight?

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. 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 nebula at top, larger pinkish semicircular-shaped nebula at bottom, in scattered star field.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Matthew Schmidt in the Catskill Mountains, New York, took this image of the Orion Nebula on November 5, 2021. Matthew wrote: “I was out in my driveway on the first clear cold night in New Kingston, NY. I had just dropped my camera and lens about 6 feet while shooting the Andromeda Galaxy and wanted to test its functionality, so I switched gears to the Orion Nebula. Turned out great, I think, and best of all, my camera and lens are still miraculously working.” Thank you, Matthew!

Connections between the stars

The stars of constellations often look like they should be physically related and gravitationally bound, but usually, they aren’t.

Some of Orion’s most famous stars do have a connection, though. 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. They’re all giant stars in the Orion Arm. These stars’ names and distances are Mintaka (1,239 light-years), Alnilam (1,344 light-years), and Alnitak (1,262 light-years). When you look at these three stars, know that you’re looking across vast space, but into our local arm of the Milky Way galaxy.

Labeled arcs of stars with lines pointing to important named stars.
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 18, 2022

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Deborah Byrd

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