See Orion’s Belt as a celestial bridge between hemispheres

Orion's Belt: Star chart of large constellation Orion with stars and 3-star Belt labeled.
Look east in the mid-evenings of November for the constellation Orion the Hunter. The 3 stars at the midsection of the Hunter are known as Orion’s Belt. As a matter of fact, the star Mintaka lies on the celestial equator, a line around the entire sky above Earth’s equator. Hence the legend of Orion’s Belt as a celestial bridge. Chart via Chelynne Campion/ EarthSky.

Look for Mintaka in Orion’s Belt

See the three stars at Orion the Hunter’s midsection? These stars are Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. In fact, they’re very noticeable and famous in many cultures as Orion’s Belt. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Aymara people of Bolivia, Peru and Chile saw the Belt as a celestial bridge or a staircase to the world of souls. But astronomers see the Belt as a type of bridge, too. These stars link the sky’s northern and southern hemispheres.

Consider Mintaka, which is the Belt’s westernmost star. It sits almost directly astride the celestial equator: the projection of Earth’s equator onto the stellar sphere.

So where can you find Mintaka and the constellation Orion? In late November, from around the world, Orion rises in your eastern sky around 9 p.m. and climbs highest for the night around 1 to 2 a.m. local time.

When dawn is breaking, or about to break, say around 5 to 6 a.m., the Hunter sits low in your western sky.

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Star chart showing the constellation Orion with longitude/latitude grid laid over it.
The constellation Orion the Hunter straddles the celestial equator, which is indicated by the horizontal line marked as 0o (0 degrees). Since the celestial equator intersects horizons all over the world at points due east and due west, you can use the star Mintaka – the one directly on the celestial equator – to find those cardinal directions in your sky. Image via ESO/ IAU/ Sky & Telescope.

Mintaka shines on the celestial equator

Mintaka’s location on the celestial equator makes it a good guidepost for finding directions here on Earth. That is, Mintaka and the other stars of the Celestial Bridge are visible worldwide. From all over the world, Mintaka rises due east, sets due west, and remains in the sky for 12 hours. It climbs to its highest point in the sky midway between rising and setting.

When it’s highest in the sky, if this star shines at your zenith (your straight-overhead point), then you must be at the equator.

If this star shines in the southern half of your sky, then you must be north of the equator.

If this star shines in the northern half of your sky, then you must be south of the equator.

The story of the Celestial Bridge is one of many about the constellation Orion. That’s because it’s so noticeable on our sky’s dome. So watch for it when you’re outside one evening soon!

Chart showing Earth inside a large translucent sphere with lines for celestial equator, celestial poles and ecliptic.
The celestial equator is an imaginary great circle on the dome of Earth’s sky drawn directly above the equator of the Earth. How you see the celestial equator in your sky depends on your latitude. But, because it’s above Earth’s equator, no matter where you are on the globe, the celestial equator intersects your horizon at points due east and due west. The ecliptic is the apparent path of the sun through the sky. Image via NASA.

Bottom line: The indigenous Aymara people of the Andes and Altiplano regions of South America see the famous sky feature we know as Orion’s Belt as a celestial bridge between the sky’s Northern and Southern Hemispheres. In fact, its westernmost star, Mintaka, lies directly on the celestial equator.

November 15, 2023

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