Tonight – or any December evening – find the famous constellation Orion the Hunter, and see the Milky Way running behind it. Orion is bright and can be seen from inside smaller cities. For the Milky Way, you’ll need a dark sky!
Throughout December, the constellation Orion is up by mid-evening; by that, we mean by midway between sunset and midnight. Like all the starry sky, Orion rises earlier each evening, and, by late December, Orion is seen at nightfall or early evening. That’s true for the Southern and Northern Hemispheres, by the way.
Orion is a summer constellation for the Southern Hemisphere.
For us in the Northern Hemisphere, because this constellation is up on our long December and January nights, we tend to associate Orion with the winter season.
As seen from this hemisphere, after Orion rises, the three stars of Orion’s Belt jut pretty much straight up from the horizon. Look on either side of the Belt stars for two very bright stars. One is the reddish star Betelgeuse. The other is bright, blue-white Rigel.
Because so many people are familiar with Orion, this constellation is a great jumping off spot for finding the pathway of stars known as the Milky Way, assuming you have a dark sky. Given a dark sky, you can see this archway of stars running near Betelgeuse on the sky’s dome, as shown on the chart at the top of this post.
When we look at this band of luminescence, we’re viewing the galactic disk edgewise – the combined glow of billions of stars. You may know that – in the month of August – the Milky Way appears broad and bright during the evening hours. At that time of year, in the evening, all of us on Earth are gazing toward the center of the galaxy.
Now Earth has traveled in its orbit around the sun, and our evening sky is pointing out in a different direction. If you see the Milky Way near the constellation Orion this month, you might think it’s very faint in contrast to the August Milky Way. That’s because now we’re looking toward the galaxy’s outer edge, and there are fewer stars between us and intergalactic space.
Bottom line: You can find one of the most famous constellations – Orion the Hunter – plus see the Milky Way tonight.