“He is wise in heart and mighty in strength… who alone stretched out the heavens and trampled the waves of the sea; who made the Bear and Orion, the Pleiades and the chambers of the south; who does great things beyond searching out, and marvelous things beyond number.” (Job 9:4, 8–10; see also Job 38:31)
Christmas nights are the most spectacular time of the year to go outside and enjoy the stars. Button up, heat up that hot chocolate, and brave the blasts of winter – you won’t be disappointed!
“What do you hunt, Orion,
This starry night?
The Ram, the Bull, and the Lion,
And the Great Bear, says Orion,
With my starry quiver and beautiful belt
I am trying to find a good thick pelt
To warm my shoulders tonight,
To warm my shoulders tonight.”
– Lettice D’Oyly Walters
Orion the Hunter and the Winter Hexagon are visible all night long. Orion is one of the most easily spotted winter constellations, visible from every inhabited part of the globe. The Winter Hexagon is the most prominent group of bright stars in the winter sky. In addition to Orion, other constellations that make up the Winter Hexagon are:
- Canis Major the Big Dog,
- Canis Minor the Little Dog,
- Taurus the Bull,
- Gemini the Twins, and
- Auriga the Charioteer.
The Winter Hexagon contains an unrivaled collection of bright stars. Click image below for a larger view. For a brief description, see my Winter Hexagon page, created in the 1990s when I was a planetarium director.
For several years in December I’ve mounted a Winter Holidays exhibit which includes rare books related to (among other things) the constellations of the Winter Hexagon (pdf exhibit brochure). For example, a full-color figure is on display of the constellation Orion the Hunter from Catherine Whitwell, An Astronomical Catechism (1818). Whitwell’s book was the subject of a post on my professional blog.
Another work, Urania’s Mirror (1825), consists of constellation cards. Cards for several winter constellations are on display, including ones for Orion (shown here), Taurus the Bull and Gemini the Twins.
To become familiar with the stars of winter (or any season), I recommend Chet Raymo, 365 Starry Nights. Raymo’s sky chart for January 1st features the Winter Hexagon:
See also this great photo of the Winter Hexagon from Astronomy Picture of the Day.