Jimmy Westlake: 'Rabbit hunting'


Greek mythology tells us that Orion was the greatest hunter of all time. His only character flaw seems to have been boasting too much. He once claimed that he was such a fearsome hunter that he could kill every animal on Earth, if he chose to do so. Having overheard Orion's boast, some of the animals got together and decided that they must make a preemptive strike. They chose one of the smallest of creatures, the lowly scorpion, to teach Orion a deadly lesson. The scorpion stung Orion on the foot and the great hunter fell to the ground dead. Not to worry, though. The great witch doctor, Aesculapius, brought him back to life and Orion promised never to boast again. Orion was eventually immortalized in the stars as a glorious winter constellation, and his mortal enemy, Scorpius the Scorpion, was placed opposite him in the summer sky so the two can never be seen at the same time.

Orion's favorite animal to hunt was not the scorpion, but the rabbit, so just below the stars marking the feet of Orion, you can spot a little rabbit made of stars named Lepus, one of our 88 official constellations. No doubt, the distinctive star pattern of Lepus the Rabbit would be better known if it weren't overshadowed by the magnificent star pattern of Orion standing over him. The rabbit's long ears and head can be found just beneath the bright blue star Rigel, marking Orion's right foot. The two brightest stars belonging to Lepus help outline his body and are named Arneb and Nihal. Arneb is derived from the Arabic word meaning "the hare." Nihal comes from the Arabic words for "a source of water" and dates back to a time when the Arabs pictured four camels in the stars of Lepus, sipping water from the nearby Milky Way. You can spot Orion stalking the sly little rabbit, Lepus, on any dark evening this month, right after sundown, high in the southern sky.

Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published on the Web sites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day," Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover, and WeatherWise magazines. His "Celestial News" article appears weekly in the local Steamboat Pilot newspaper. He also records a radio spot called the "Cosmic Moment" for the local radio station "The Range" at 107.3 FM.


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