Orion the Hunter and the Milky Way on December evenings

Constellation Orion marked with blue lines between labeled bright stars, and fuzzy band labeled Milky Way.
On December and January evenings, you’ll find a faint band – what we in the Northern Hemisphere call the “winter” Milky Way – stretching up from the horizon and running through the constellation Orion the Hunter. Notice Orion’s 3 Belt stars. They’re easy to spot in the sky. But you’ll need a dark sky to see the Milky Way.

Orion the Hunter on December evenings

Tonight, or any December evening, find the famous constellation Orion the Hunter. It’s bright and can be seen from inside smaller cities. And the three stars that make up Orion’s Belt – in a short, straight row at the Hunter’s midsection – are very noticeable. If you have a dark sky, you can see something else: the starry band of the Milky Way – the edgewise view of our home galaxy – running behind Orion.

As seen from the Northern Hemisphere, after Orion rises, the three stars of Orion’s Belt jut more or less 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.

Throughout December, the constellation Orion is well up by mid-evening (by that we mean by midway between your local sunset and your local midnight). Like all of the starry sky, as Earth moves around the sun, Orion rises earlier each evening. So, by late December, Orion will be seen at nightfall or early evening. That’s true for both the Southern and Northern Hemispheres.

Orion is a summer constellation for the Southern Hemisphere.

But we in the Northern Hemisphere associate Orion with winter nights. That’s because this constellation is up throughout our long December and January nights.

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Large array of 8 bright stars, blue-white except one reddish, in star field.
Orion the Hunter, captured by astrophotographer Alan Dyer. Rigel appears in the lower right of the constellation. Contrast its bluish-white light with that of reddish Betelgeuse in the upper left. Image via Alan Dyer/ Used with permission.

Use Orion to find the Milky Way

Because so many people are familiar with Orion, this constellation is a great jumping off spot for finding the starry pathway of the Milky Way. You’ll need a dark sky to see the hazy arc of stars running behind the bright red star Betelgeuse.

Looking at the Milky Way in our sky is looking edgewise into the disk of our galaxy. We see the galaxy as the combined glow of billions of stars. You might 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 star-rich 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 behind the constellation Orion this month, you might think it’s very faint in contrast to the August Milky Way. It is fainter, because now we’re looking toward the galaxy’s outer edge. There are fewer stars between us and intergalactic space.

Orion is easy to spot

At least part of Orion is visible from anywhere on the globe. It’s visible in the evening sky for Northern Hemisphere observers from late autumn through early spring. On the other hand, it’s visible in the summer evening sky from the Southern Hemisphere.

Star chart: constellation Orion above constellation Monoceros, with 5 stars labeled and faint gray band.
Here’s Orion higher in the sky, later at night in December, with the faint constellation Monoceros the Unicorn, plus the bright stars Sirius and Procyon. If you have a dark sky, you’ll find the faint winter Milky Way running behind them all.
Wide array of bright but slightly fuzzy bright stars, mostly blue-white but one reddish, over dark landscape.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Sergei Timofeevski shared this image from November 13, 2023. Sergei wrote: “The constellation Orion the Hunter and the star Sirius rising just above the eastern horizon in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California.” Thank you, Sergei! See the orangish star marking one of Orion’s shoulders? That’s the star Betelgeuse.

Bottom line: You can find one of the most famous constellations – Orion the Hunter – plus see the Milky Way tonight.

Read More: Orion’s Belt and the Celestial Bridge

Easily locate stars and constellations during any day and time with EarthSky’s planisphere

December 17, 2023

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