Jimmy Westlake: Beneath Orion’s feet

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— Orion the Hunter rules the winter sky, but, if you can pull your eyes away from his magnificence, you can use Orion to find some other cool constellations. Beneath Orion’s feet are two smaller star patterns that would be much better known, if they weren’t overshadowed by the big hunter above them.

Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

Orion’s favorite animal to hunt was the rabbit, so when Zeus was decorating the sky, Greek mythology explains that he placed a little, starry rabbit close by Orion in the sky. Lepus the Rabbit’s long ears and head can be located just below the bright blue star Rigel, marking Orion’s right foot.

Lepus’ two brightest stars, representing his back and belly, are named 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 a time when the Arabs pictured four camels in the stars of Lepus, sipping water from the nearby river constellation of Eridanus.

Below the stars of Lepus the Rabbit, you can find the stars of another small and often overlooked constellation. It’s Columba the Dove, winging her way over our southern mountains this time of year.

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 Biblical Great Flood. The white-feathered bird returned to the ark with an olive sprig in her mouth, indicating that dry land had been found.

Columba is a relatively recent addition to the sky. It was formed in the 16th century from a few stars stolen from nearby Canis Major, Orion’s big hunting dog. Astronomer Petrus Plancius was the first to publish Columba on his star chart in 1592.

The three main stars of Columba form a small triangle that can be located straight down below the pattern of Lepus the Rabbit. 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 that means “the weight.” Stargazers of old must have thought that Wazn was a heavy star because it wasn’t able to rise very high above the southern horizon.

To spot Columba the Dove, you’ll need a clear, unobstructed view down to the southern horizon. Go outside around 10 p.m. during mid-January and face due south. Locate the three stars of Orion’s Belt and look about one-and-a-half hand spans below the great Hunter to find the triangle of stars that forms the little Dove, Columba.

Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. His "Celestial News" column appears weekly in the Steamboat Today newspaper and his "Cosmic Moment" radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Check out “Jimmy’s 2014 Cosmic Calendar” of sky events on his website at www.jwestlake.com. It features twelve of his best astrophotographs and a day-by day listing of cool celestial events that you and your family can enjoy watching in 2014. Proceeds from the sale of Cosmic Calendars help to support the CMC SKY Club.

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