Tuesday, October 23 , 2018, 10:45 pm | Fair 67º

 
 
 
 
Astronomy

Dennis Mammana: A Stellar Romance Rises in the Sky, Sort Of

Orion’s love interests may emerge after dark this week. Click to view larger
Orion’s love interests may emerge after dark this week. (Creators.com illustration)

This week we observe St. Valentine’s Day, a time for celebrating the universal emotion of love. And nowhere is love more represented at this time of year than in the starry heavens.

Ask any stargazer about this and most will mention Venus, sparkling in the western sky at sunset. After all, she is named for the ancient Roman goddess of love and beauty, while the ancient Greeks knew her as Aphrodite and the Babylonians as Ishtar.

I’ll bet few modern sky watchers would even think to associate romance with the burly hunter Orion, and yet he’s the star of our story today.

Stargazers in the Earth’s Northern Hemisphere can easily find the outline of his muscular body midway up in the southern sky after dark, while from south of the equator he stands prominently in the north.

Of the several mythological stories we know about Orion, one thing is consistent: He was a real dog. No one enjoyed chasing the ladies more, and he relentlessly pursued all the sisters of the Pleiades, as well as those of the Hyades — none of whom wanted anything to do with him.

After winning the love of the huntress Artemis (goddess of the hunt and the moon), her overly protective brother, Apollo, sent a scorpion to sting and kill Orion, but the plan failed. So Apollo instead tricked Artemis into fatally shooting Orion with an arrow.

In honor of Orion’s great hunting skills, Zeus (known as Jupiter in Roman mythology) placed him prominently in the heavens along with his two hunting dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor. And in a cruel act of celestial taunting, he also placed there the sisters of the Pleiades and the Hyades — just beyond his reach. To guard Orion for all time, Zeus placed the scorpion (Scorpius) on the opposite side of the sky so that Orion and Artemis could never interact again.

This week, stargazers can find all these characters in the nighttime sky. Orion is outlined by an hourglass shape, its two northernmost stars forming his shoulders while those on the southern end form his knees. In the middle appears a line of three equally bright stars forming his belt, and from it hangs his sword ... or so they tell us.

By following his three belt stars westward you will soon encounter the bright star Aldebaran, the V-shaped Hyades and, eventually, the delicate shimmering Pleiades star cluster. And, at least this Valentine’s Day, the light of Jupiter (Zeus in Greek mythology) shines brightly between them, as if watching and protecting them from Orion’s eternal lust.

Follow Orion’s belt stars in the opposite direction and you’ll find Sirius, the brightest star in all the heavens, and a diamond in the collar of his great hunting dog Canis Major. Canis Minor appears as a tiny star grouping to its northeast.

And the scorpion? Well, you won’t find him this week; this constellation rises as Orion sets and sets as Orion rises, just as Zeus arranged.

This week, if the sky is clear where you live, bundle up and take your sweetie out for a nice leisurely stroll among the stars. ... What could possibly be more romantic?

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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