Orion the Hunter – A Backyard Astronomy Guidepost

Winter is here! And with the passing seasons, brings new constellations into our evening night skies. During the winter months, it is the mighty hunter Orion who takes the center stage as the prominent constellation this time of year.

Orion is easily identifiable, distinguished by the famous trio of bright stars known as Orion?s belt. Within its boundaries contains many notable and interesting targets worth viewing, however the great hunter can also be used as a cosmic guidepost of sorts, pointing towards a number of other notable stars and deep sky objects. Let’s take a look at some of the wonderful stars and deep sky objects you can spot from your own backyard this winter using Orion to point the way!


The second brightest star within Orion is the brilliant star Betelguese, forming his right shoulder (as he is facing us) and distinguished by its intense red-orange hue. Betelguese is an aging red giant nearing the end of its life and is among the largest stars visible in our night sky, nearing 1000x the width of our own sun! Betelguese will soon end its life in an explosive supernova event seeding future star systems with the atomic building blocks necessary to assemble rocky planets, and even perhaps spark new life.

The Great Orion Nebula

Situated neatly within Orion’s sword is perhaps the most celebrated of all astronomical treasures is the Great Orion Nebula, considered one of the most spectacular deep sky objects to witness through a telescope or binoculars. Referred to as a ?stellar nursery? these hydrogen rich regions within our galaxy act as cosmic nesting grounds producing thousands of new stars and planetary systems within.

Orion as a guidepost, pointing to a variety of interesting stars and deep sky targets.

Aldebaran and the Pleiades

Following in the direction of the belt stars west about the distance of two closed fists held together at arm’s length will land us on the star Aldebaran, a red giant comparable in mass to our own sun at just 36 light years away. Continue the same direction a little further and you?ll arrive at the Pleiades (or Seven Sisters), an unmistakable naked eye cluster of stars. Alternatively known as the ?Subaru,? you might recognize this small pattern of stars resembling the emblem of the Japanese automaker of the same name!

The Star Clusters of Auriga

Gazing directly above Orion?s head about 45 degrees will lead you to Capella, the brightest star within the constellation Auriga. Within its borders, Auriga is home to three beautiful star clusters identified by the famous astronomer Charles Messier. The clusters M36, M37 and M38 are all visible under dark skies with a good pair of binoculars and even better through small scopes.

Castor and Pollux

Finally, imagine connecting a line from the rightmost belt star of Orion to Betelguese. Continue along this path to point you to the star Castor, one of the two Gemini Twins. Appearing as a single star to the naked eye, Castor is actually a sextuple star system (that’s six stars!) all revolving around one another in a delicate orbital dance. With a modest telescope Castor resolves itself as one of the sky?s finest double stars.

Whether you have a pair of binoculars, a telescope or just your own eyes, be sure to step outside on a clear evening this winter and see how many of these objects you can find! Better yet, if you find yourself in Jackson, Wyoming this winter, come meet one of our experienced guides at our free weekly Stargazing @ Stilson to view some of these objects upclose through our 20? dobsonian telescope!

You can find us located at the back of the Stilson bus lot (Hwy 22 and Moose Wilson Rd) every clear Thursday night after sunset this winter from 6-8pm. See you there!

Free public stargazing at Stilson bus lot every Thursday night.

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