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Orion Constellation: Facts About the Hunter

While the Orion constellation is named after the hunter in Greek mythology, it is anything but stealthy. Orion, which is located on the celestial equator, is one of the most prominent and recognizable constellations in the sky and can be seen throughout the world.

Orion, Brightest Winter Constellation
Orion is the brightest and most beautiful of the winter constellations. Some of its stars, including Betelgeuse and Rigel, are among the brightest stars.
Credit: Starry Night Software

Locating Orion the Hunter

Orion is clearly visible in the night sky from November to February. Orion is in the southwest sky if you are in the Northern Hemisphere or the northwestern sky if you are in the Southern Hemisphere. It is best seen between latitudes 85 and -75 degrees. Its right ascension is 5 hours, and its declination is 5 degrees.

Alnilam, Mintaka and Alnitak, which form Orion’s belt, are the most prominent stars in the Orion constellation. Betelgeuse, the second brightest star in Orion, establishes the right shoulder of the hunter. Bellatrix serves as Orion's left shoulder.

The Orion Nebula—a formation of dust, hydrogen, helium and other ionized gases rather than a star—is the middle "star" in Orion’s sword, which hangs off of Orion's Belt. The Horsehead Nebula is also nearby.

Other stars in the constellation include Hatsya, which establishes the tip of Orion's sword that hangs off the belt, and Meissa, which forms Orion's head. Saiph serves as Orion's right knee. Rigel forms the hunter's left knee.

With one exception, all of the main stars in Orion are bright young blue giants or supergiants, ranging in distance from Bellatrix (243 light-years) to Alnilam (1,359 light-years). The Orion Nebula is farther away than any of the naked eye stars at a distance of about 1,600 light-years. One light-year is the distance light travels in a single year, about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion kilometers).

The exception is the star Betelgeuse, which is a red giant and one of the largest stars known. It is also the only star in the sky large enough and close enough to have been imaged as a disk in the Hubble Space Telescope. Observers with a keen eye should be able to see the difference in color between Betelgeuse and all the other stars in Orion. [Space Photos: Orion Nebula & Other Stunning Views]

Orion's Belt
The stars Alnilam, Mintaka and Alnitak form Orion’s belt.
Credit: Martin Mutti, Astronomical Image Data Archive

Mythology

There are several versions of the myth of Orion, but one of the more common iterations is that Orion proclaimed himself to be the greatest hunter in the world, much to the dismay of Hera, the wife of Zeus. She had a scorpion kill him, and Zeus put Orion into the sky as consolation. In another version, Orion is blinded for raping Merope, a granddaughter of the god Dionysis. He has to travel East to seek the sun's rays to recover his sight.

While the name Orion is steeped in Greek mythology, many cultures have been influenced by the story of this constellation. Orion has also associated with the Egyptian Pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty called Unas. In Hungary, Orion is known as (magic) Archer (Íjász), or Scyther (Kaszás). Scandinavians refer to "Orion's belt" as Frigg's Distaff.

— Kim Ann Zimmermann

Constellation Quiz: What's Your Cosmic IQ?
Constellations ancient and modern grace the skies year round. Let's see what you know about the star patterns that appear overhead every night.
Constellations of Autumn
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Constellation Quiz: What's Your Cosmic IQ?
Constellations ancient and modern grace the skies year round. Let's see what you know about the star patterns that appear overhead every night.
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Constellations of Autumn
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