Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears monthly in the Steamboat Today.
Find more columns by Westlake here.
Steamboat Springs When looking up at the winter sky, your eye is drawn to the brilliant stars of Orion. But if you can pull your eyes away, you can use Orion to find some other cool constellations. Beneath Orion’s feet are two small star patterns.
Orion’s favorite animal to hunt was the rabbit, so Zeus placed a starry rabbit, Lepus, close to him in the sky. The rabbit’s long ears and head can be located just below the bright blue star Rigel, which marks Orion’s right foot. Lepus’ two brightest stars, representing his back and belly, are Arneb and Nihal. The name Arneb is derived from the Arabic word meaning “the rabbit.” Nihal comes from the Arabic words meaning “a source of water” and dates back to when the Arabs pictured four camels in the stars of Lepus, sipping water from the constellation of Eridanus.
Beneath the stars of Lepus you can find the stars of another small and often overlooked constellation. It’s Columba, the dove, winging her way over our southern mountains. Originally known as Columba Noae, or Noah’s Dove, Columba represents the bird that Noah released from the ark to search for dry land during the Great Flood. The white-feathered bird returned to the ark with an olive sprig in her mouth, indicating that dry land indeed had been found.
Columba is a relatively recent addition to the sky. It was formed from a few stars stolen in the 16th century from nearby Canis Major, Orion’s big hunting dog.
The three main stars of Columba form a small triangle that can be located straight down below the pattern of Lepus. The top star in the triangle is named Phact, from the Arabic word for “dove.” The left star in the triangle is named Wazn, from the Arabic word meaning “the weight.” Stargazers of old must have thought Wazn was a heavy star because it wasn’t able to rise very high.
To spot the dove you’ll need a clear, unobstructed view down to the southern horizon. Go outside at about 10 p.m. this week and face due south. Locate the three stars of Orion’s Belt and look about 1 1/2 hand spans below the great hunter to find the triangle of stars that forms Columba.
Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College’s Alpine Campus. Visit his website at www.jwestlake.com.