Sunday, November 25, 2007
Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
Steamboat Springs "You know, Orion always comes up sideways,
throwing a leg up over our fence of mountains,
and, rising on his hands, he looks in on me,
busy outdoors by lantern light
with something I should have done by daylight
and, indeed, after the ground is frozen,
I should have done before it froze.
And a gust flings a handful of waste leaves at my smoky lantern chimney, to make fun of my way of doing things,
or else, fun of Orion having caught me.
Has a man, I should like to ask, no rights
that these forces are obliged to pay respect to?"
This excerpt from Robert Frost's poem entitled "The Star Splitter" captures in words one of my favorite celestial events: the rising of the magnificent constellation of Orion the Hunter. All of a sudden, after changing from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time at the beginning of November, Orion is rising in the early evening before most of us go to bed instead of around midnight. You can catch him "throwing his leg up over our fence of mountains" in the eastern sky around 9 p.m. in mid-November.
Orion is one of only two constellations visible from Colorado that contain two first-magnitude stars. Ruddy Betelgeuse and icy-blue Rigel pop up over the mountains at about the same time, followed by the three stars of Orion's Belt, Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. The three belt stars rise in a vertical line halfway between Betelgeuse and Rigel, almost like one of Orion's arrows shot straight up from below the horizon.
Hanging from Orion's Belt is his sword, composed of a fainter trio of stars. The middle star in the sword looks fuzzy, even to the naked eye. This is the Great Orion Nebula, also known by its Messier Catalog number, M42. Aim your binoculars at this nebula for a closer view of one of the largest hydrogen gas clouds in the Milky Way.
Yes sir, when Orion rises in the early evening, you can be certain that the winter snows are not far behind.
Welcome back, old friend.
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 websites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" website, Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, MSNBC.com, NationalGeographic.com and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover and WeatherWise magazines. His "Celestial News" article appears weekly in the Steamboat Pilot newspaper. His "Cosmic Moment" radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU.