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    Sunday, February 25, 2024

    The telltale belt: Orion is back

    Call me crazy, but I like turning the clocks back an hour like we did last weekend. Anything that adds stargazing time to the evening is a good thing in my book, and night falling an hour earlier does just that.

    That hand moving backward in November beckons Orion to come out and play. Starting tonight, Nov. 8, the constellation pokes his head above the horizon, rising around 10 p.m. Look for his telltale belt in the eastern sky. These three unmistakable stars are named, from left, Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. Alnitak is closest to the orange-red star Betelgeuse, which sits on Orion’s right shoulder as he faces us.

    What’s neat about Orion is that, of the 10 stars — well, nine stars and one nebula — making up the Hunter’s shoulders, feet, belt and sword, almost all of them are relatively similar distances from Earth. Many stars in a constellation only look like their distances from Earth are similar, but they actually differ by many thousands of light years.

    Alnitak is 817 light years away from us, Alnilam is 1,976 light years away and Mintaka is 916 light years away. The light from his shoulders, Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, took 498 and 252 years, respectively, to reach us. Even his feet, right-foot Saiph and left-foot Rigel, are 647 and 863 light years away. So when we look at Orion we’re seeing him as he looked, on average, 850-ish years ago.

    The three stars hanging vertically between his feet and belt make up his sword and tell a different story. The top star is 359 light years away from Earth, the middle “star” is actually a nebula, and the bottom star in the belt is farthest, at 2,330 light years away.

    A stargazer with a telescope or binoculars can easily spend a long winter evening with Orion.



    Through November: The Taurids meteor shower peaked on the night of Nov. 5 into Nov. 6, but the dual-stream shower continues until Dec. 10. The Taurids only produces a few meteors an hour at peak, but unlike other showers it has two separate debris streams. One is made of dust grains from Asteroid 2004 TG10, and the second is made of debris from Comet 2P Encke. This languorous shower kicked off back in September.

    Nov. 11: New moon.

    Nov. 17 and 18: Leonids meteor shower peaks. The Leonids is average with up to 15 meteors per hour at peak. Every 33 years or so, Earth passes through an especially thick part of comet Tempel-Tuttle’s stream and hundreds of meteors per hour can be seen. That last occurred in 2001. The first quarter moon will set shortly after midnight. Best views will be after midnight away from light pollution. Meteors will radiate from the constellation Leo, but can appear anywhere in the sky.

    Nov. 25: Full moon.

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