Orion the Hunter is the dominating constellation of winter in the northern hemisphere. It contains bright stars and is in a part of the sky full of conspicuous star groupings. One of the features that make Orion so recognizable is its “belt,” three stars seemingly arranged diagonally in the sky at the hunter’s midsection. You can locate Orion’s belt with little problem and once you do, you can also find other interesting heavenly objects.
Head outside on a clear and moonless winter night in January. Orion is a constellation that stays above the horizon all winter for nearly every location in the United States. Wait until about nine at night during the first month of the year to go outside and search for Orion’s belt. Remember that it is not the stars in the night sky that move, but rather the rotation of the Earth as it orbits the sun that makes it seem as if the stars change positions from season to season.
Look to the southern horizon to find Orion. In January, this constellation is visible in the south. As the winter wears on and February approaches, Orion shifts to the southwestern sky with each passing evening. By looking for it in January, you only have to know where south is in the sky.
Gaze into the sky and search for what will seem like a giant tilted hourglass. This is the main body of Orion. In the left upper corner of this great rectangle, you will see a very bright star called Betelgeuse, while in the opposite lower right corner is the even brighter Rigel. The rectangle will seem tipped a bit toward the east.
Locate the three bright stars close together in the midsection of the rectangle. As you look at them from right to left, they will point downwards. This is the famous Belt of Orion. The three stars are from right to left named Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak. No other three stars in the night sky align in this manner so close together, which makes the Belt of Orion very easy to identify.
Glance down from the middle star of the belt, Alnilam, and you will see three much fainter stars. These stars form the “dagger” that hangs from Orion’s belt. If you have access to a small telescope or a pair of binoculars, look at the middle of these three stars. It is actually the Great Orion Nebula, a gigantic gaseous cloud in space.
Follow the belt downward from west to east with an imaginary line through it to find the brightest star of the evening sky, Sirius. This star is part of Canis Major, one of Orion’s hunting dogs in mythology. If you follow an imaginary line up from east to west through Orion’s belt, you will come to a “V” shaped grouping of stars with one very bright one in its midst. This is Taurus the Bull, which seems to be charging at the heavenly hunter.