Sky Watch: A stellar romance of sorts
This week we observe Valentine's Day, a time for celebrating the universal emotion of love. And nowhere is love more represented at this time of year than in the starry heavens.
Ask any stargazer about this and most will mention Venus; after all, she is named for the ancient Roman goddess of love and beauty, while the ancient Greeks knew her as Aphrodite and the Babylonians as Ishtar. But I'll bet few modern sky watchers wouldn't even think to associate romance with the burly hunter Orion, and yet he's the "star" of our story today.
Stargazers from the Earth's Northern Hemisphere can easily find the outline of his muscular body midway up in the southern sky after dark, while from south of the equator he stands prominently in the north.
Though we know of several mythological stories about Orion, one thing is consistent throughout them all: He was a real dog. No one enjoyed chasing women more than Orion, and he relentlessly pursued all the sisters of the Pleiades, as well as those of the Hyades -- none of whom wanted anything to do with him.
After winning the love of the huntress Artemis (goddess of the hunt and the moon), her overly protective brother Apollo sent a scorpion to sting and kill Orion, but the plan failed. Apollo instead tricked Artemis into fatally shooting Orion with an arrow.
In honor of Orion's great hunting skills, Zeus (Jupiter, in Roman mythology) placed him in a prominent place in the heavens, along with his two hunting dogs Canis Major and Canis Minor. And in a cruel act of celestial taunting, he also placed there the sisters of the Pleiades and Hyades -- just beyond his reach. And to protect Orion for all time, Zeus placed the scorpion (Scorpius) on the opposite side of the sky so that the two could never interact again.
This week, stargazers can find all these characters in the nighttime sky.
Orion is outlined by an hourglass shape, its two northernmost stars form his shoulders while those on the southern end form his knees. In the middle appears a line of three equally bright stars forming his belt, from which hangs his sword.
By following his three belt stars westward, you will soon encounter the bright star Aldebaran and the V-shaped Hyades and, eventually, the delicate shimmering Pleiades star cluster. This Valentine's Day, the light of Jupiter (Zeus in Greek mythology) shines brightly between them, as if watching and protecting them from Orion's eternal lust.
Follow Orion's belt stars in the opposite direction and you'll find Sirius, the brightest star in all the heavens and a diamond in the collar of Canis Major, Orion's great hunting dog. Canis Minor appears as a tiny star grouping to its northeast.
And the scorpion? Well, you won't find him this week; this constellation rises as Orion sets and sets as Orion rises, just as Zeus had arranged.
This week, if the sky is clear where you live, bundle up and take your sweetie out for a nice leisurely stroll among the stars . . . what could possibly be more romantic!