Looking Up: Orion makes a preview

Peter Becker

If you don’t like the cold, let’s not hurry up winter, but one of the most amazing constellations of all is Orion, the crown jewels of the winter evening sky. You can get a sneak preview tonight, in the relative warmth of autumn and with the crunch of leaves underfoot rather than your boots in the snow.

Wait till about 11 p.m. during mid- to late October, and face due east. Hopefully you will see more than I probably will, since like most people, the horizon outside the house is far from flat. You need to find a place with a low, flat eastern horizon, perhaps on your neighborhood prairie, on any of the Atlantic beaches or up on a hill probably not far from you. In Wayne County, Pa., good eastern views may be found from the plateau where Route 652 heads to Beach Lake, or up on Farview Mountain where on a clear day you can see three states.

Orion, the mythological Hunter, will be seen just stepping up into the sky, with beautiful, bright blue-white star Rigel -- the Hunter’s left foot -- sticking out to the far right. At far right is the bright red super-giant star Betelgeuse, marking the right shoulder of the Hunter. Right in the middle is the famed three stars marking Orion’s Belt. Pictured low on the eastern horizon -- as seen from mid-northern latitudes, the Belt is oriented almost vertical.

The condition “as seen from mid-northern latitudes” seems cumbersome and confusing, but it is important if by chance you read this from far south or far north of around 40 degrees north latitude, or in other words, from around New York and points west. As you travel our globe, the sky changes dramatically. Take note of this should you be driving to Florida this winter. From Pennsylvania, for instance, the bright star Canopus, which is below Orion, cannot be seen. If it is evening and clear as you drive down Interstate 95 through Georgia into Florida, bright Canopus likely will be flickering low ahead of you in the south. Looking back north, the North Star will be noticeably lower as seen from Florida. The orientation of Orion as it rises (or sets), as well as other constellations, differs depending on your latitude.

If you are an early riser and it’s still dark out, be sure to look out if only through a window. In mid- to late October, Orion will be due south about 5 a.m. In late January, you will see the same perspective, at 9 p.m., but of course it will probably be frigid outside! Of course I have to add, if you are a Florida snow-bird, you will enjoy sparkling Orion due south at 9 p.m., but considerably higher in the sky, and maybe between a couple lush palm trees.

All this talk about seeing Orion in October brings us to mention the Orionid Meteor Shower. This annual concentration of meteors peaks before dawn on Tuesday, Oct. 21. About a dozen meteors might be seen in an hour, anywhere in the sky, but emanating from a radiant point just east of Betelgeuse. Unfortunately the moon is last-quarter on the 21st, meaning it rises in the east about 11 p.m. Moonlight will hide all but the brightest of the meteors, but it may still be worth watching. You may not see any Orionid meteors in the evening, before Orion rises in the east, since the radiant point is hidden by the planet you call home.

The radiant area rises over the eastern horizon about 11 p.m., along with Orion. The moon will be rising at this time, in the northeast.

Like any meteor shower, the higher the radiant is in the sky, the more meteors you are likely to see. A wide-open sky is best.

Meteor showers have their own unique characteristics. Orionid meteors are known to be very swift (not good for wish-making). Tiny bits of rock, the meteors collide with Earth’s upper atmosphere at 41 miles a second and vaporize before your eyes, about 60 miles up. The shower lasts from around Oct. 15 through 29.

These meteors are associated with the famed Halley’s Comet. Orbiting the sun every 76 years, the comet is known to have been observed for at least past 2,200 years and was last passing Earth’s vicinity in 1986. Comets disintegrate with each pass of the sun, leaving a trail of meteoroids in its orbital path.

In the evening at this time of year, be sure to look straight up for the bright star Deneb in Cygnus the Swan -- marking the top of the “Northern Cross” traced through this constellation. In late twilight, look for Jupiter low in the south-southwest and Venus in the west. Early risers can see Mercury shining low in the east before dawn, and Saturn higher up.

Keep looking up!

Peter W. Becker is managing editor at The Wayne Independent in Honesdale, Pa. He has been an amateur astronomer since the age of 12, in 1969. He may be reached at