Orion is prominent in ancient mythology, originally a significant character of Babylon. Orion’s belt, which is an easily identified asterism, is used for navigation and identifying other stars. The Orion constellation highlights an interesting observation into the distance of the stars from earth. Despite having 7 of the 70 brightest stars in this constellation, none of the light originated in your lifetime. The nearest star of those 7 is 245 light years away while all others are over 600 light years away. Therefore, the light you see in each of these stars originates from before Copernicus discovered the sun to be the centre of our solar system.
The Orion Constellation is one of the original 48 constellations listed by the Egyptian mathematician Ptolemy, who lived under Roman rule in Alexandria in the 2nd century. These constellations formed the basis for the modern list agreed by the IAU. Constellations from the Southern hemisphere, unable to be seen from the Mediterranean, represent the majority of the additions to the list.
As the earth moves in its orbit around the sun, each night you are looking at a different portion of the sky. When looking at stars it is important to be aware of what is within your view. Northern hemisphere stargazers can group constellations into 3 groups; circumpolar, summer and winter constellations. The circumpolar constellations are in the north sky, appear to move around the north star and are visible throughout the year. The constellations in the south sky are only visible for part of the year and are grouped as either summer or winter constellations. Each is visible from between 4 to 10 months.
It is important to be aware of the specific time of year and hour of the night when deciding what to look for. These pages below show the constellations in each group so you can find the constellations that interest you.
CIRCUMPOLAR (year around) – Ursa Major – Cassiopeia – Ursa Minor – Draco – Cepheus
WINTER – Pegasus – Pisces – Aries – Auriga – Taurus – Orion – Canis Major – Canis Minor – Gemini – Lynx – Cancer – Leo – Winter Hexagon
SUMMER – Virgo – Libra – Scorpius – Bootes – Hercules – Lyra – Ophiuchus – Sagittarius – Aquila – Cygnus – Capricornus – Aquarius
Or use this guide to easily see which constellations are easiest to find right now:
Orion Quick Facts:
Symbolism: The Hunter
Brightest star: Rigel, 0.18 magnitude (7th brightest in night sky)
Stars brighter than 3 magnitude: 7
Primary stars: 23 + 1 (10 in the body, 4 in the club, 9 in the bow & a nebula representing his sword). The main shape of the body is made up of 8 stars – 3 for the belt, 1 for each foot, 1 for each shoulder and 1 for the head. Two lesser stars represent a knee and an elbow. Orion’s sword is represented by Orion’s Nebula (M42).
Latitude: 10 degrees south – 20 degrees north
Northern Hemisphere Season: Winter (November – March)
Which months can you see Orion Constellation?
Orion is visible in the night sky from August to April. Orion lies between 10 degrees south and 20 degrees north latitude. Therefore the higher your latitude the shorter your opportunity to see Orion and the lower it will pass in the sky.
- Early evening viewers (pre 21:00) can find the constellation from December in the north east sky until April in the north west sky. Orion will be visible overhead from January to February.
- Mid evening viewers (21:00-23:30) can find the constellation from November in the north east sky until February in the northwest sky. Orion will be visible overhead in from December to January.
- Late evening viewers (after 23:30) can find the constellation from October in the north east sky until January in the north west sky. Orion will be visible overhead from November to December.
- Early morning viewers can find the constellation from August in the north east sky to October in the north west sky. Orion will be visible overhead from from September to October.
Orion is not possible to see throughout summer, as it passes in the daytime sky. At its maximum range it is possible to see at latitudes between +60 and -90. However, the lower latitudes will have visibility for longer periods of the year.
Best time to see Orion:
Best visible at 21:00 in January
August: rises in south east sky at 03:00 and reaches 40 degrees above south east horizon by sunrise
September: rises in south east sky at 01:00 and reaches 60 degrees above the south horizon by sunrise
October: rises in south east sky at 23:30 and reaches its peak 60 degrees above the southern horizon at 04:00. It will then lower to 40 degrees above the south west horizon by sunrise
November: rises in south east sky at 20:30 and reaches its peak 60 degrees above the southern horizon at 01:00. It will then lower in the south west sky until it begins to be only partially visible from 05:30.
December: rises in south east sky at 18:30 and reaches its peak 60 degrees above the southern horizon at 23:00. It will then lower in the south west sky until it begins to be only partially visible from 04:00.
January: visible 20 degrees above the south east horizon at sunset and reaches its peak 60 degrees above the southern horizon at 21:00. It will then lower in the south west sky until it begins to be only partially visible from 02:00.
February: visible 45 degrees above the south east horizon at sunset and reaches its peak 60 degrees above the southern horizon at 19:00. It will then lower in the south west sky until it begins to be only partially visible from 24:00.
March: visible 50 degrees above the southern horizon at sunset. It will then lower in the south west sky until it begins to be only partially visible from 23:00.
April: visible 30 degrees above the south west horizon at sunset. It will then lower in the south west sky until it begins to be only partially visible from 22:00.
Trajectory: The constellation is between 10 degrees south and 20 degrees north which means that for those in low latitudes of the northern hemisphere it will cross the high southern sky, for those in higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere it will cross in the southern sky. In Wadi Rum the constellation will rise just south of due east and set just south of due west and pass across high in the southern sky.
Not the right time for Gemini? Have a look what constellations you can see tonight.
How to find Orion constellation?
The Orion constellation is visible high in the southern sky during winter months for observers in the northern hemisphere. To find Orion constellation, the starting point is Orion’s Belt.
Finding Orion’s Belt
There are 3 bright stars near to each other in a straight line forming Orion’s belt. This is one of the most recognisable star formations in the night sky. These 3 stars can also be known as the 3 kings or the 3 sisters. This asterism is among the most obvious and is a starting point for finding many other constellations.
STEP 1: Ensure Orion’s belt is present in the night sky
Use the detailed description above of rising and setting times for the Orion constellation to ensure that it is visible at your viewing time and location
STEP 2: Identify the area of sky for Orion’s belt
Orion’s belt and the entire Orion constellation should pass through the sky each night from east to west during summer. The hours will vary as per step 1. The angle Orion’s belt will pass you will be the angle of your latitude down from overhead and in the southern sky. As an example if you were at the equator it would pass directly overhead, if you are in London or New York or similar latitudes it will pass half way between the horizon and overhead in the southern sky – around 45 degrees. The higher your latitude the lower it will pass in the sky and vice versa. Now combined with the knowledge in step 1 and step 2 you should have an idea of what area of the sky you will find Orion’s belt.
If you want to try your luck and skip all the interpretations of your location and time of year just search for 3 close bright stars in a straight line in the south sky (north sky for anyone in the southern hemisphere). As you can never see more than half of the stars from any point on earth and all 3 stars are among the 70 brightest visible from earth, they are very noteworthy because of their proximity to each other and straight line they form.
STEP 3: Which way is up?
Orion’s belt has a sword or dagger hanging from it so this becomes a useful guide to understand which way is the top of Orion and which is the bottom. The sword known as Orion’s Nebula in celestial terminology and appears as a white area rather than point of light. There are some other stars above it that make it appear long and narrow. The sword faces south. The head of Orion points towards the north star. The belt sits on an angle so does not point east- west. Instead the angle of the belt is around 45 degrees and points northeast-southwest.
Other stars that help to find Orion
The alternate approach for finding Orion is with the winter triangle or hexagon. The winter triangle connects the constellations of Orion with Canis Major and Canis Minor. The winter hexagon connects those 3 constellations with Gemini, Auriga and Taurus. Although the same star represents the other constellations, Orion contributes different stars. Betelgeuse is part of the Winter Triangle, but is in the centre of the hexagon where Rigel forms one corner.
Betelgeuse marks the shoulder of Orion and Rigel marks a foot. With the belt clearly apparent between these stars you have a good starting point to tracing the outline of Orion.
Learn how to form the shape of Orion Constellation
To find the shape of the Orion Constellation you can start by identifying the hour glass shape of his body.
The body of Orion
Orion’s body is the easiest to identify, with the 8 brightest stars in the constellation marking the extremities.
Rigel the brightest star marks Orion’s left (eastern) foot. [Orion is considered to be facing earth so his left will correspond with your right]
Orions belt made up of Alnitak, Alnilam & Mintaka. When identifying to overall constellation it is useful to be aware that the belt angles downward at its western end.
The right (western) foot is a similar distance from the belt with the legs angled outward at around a 30 degrees gradient marked by Saiph.
Betelguese is the other very bright star in the constellation and marks the right (western) shoulder.
The left (eastern) shoulder marked by Bellatrix is similarly distanced from the belt to the other feet and shoulders with only the angle of the belt preventing an appearance of symmetry.
Orion’s head (Meissa or Heka) is equidistant from the two shoulders at a 45 degrees angle.
Additionally there is a bright Nebula and 2 lesser stars that are part of the body of Orion.
The sword is attached to the belt and is recognisable as the bright nebula located in the middle of the belt and the two feet.
There is another star considered to mark the left (eastern) knee around a third of the way between Rigel and the belt.
There is a star that marks the right (western) elbow of Orion. This star is 90 degrees from the line between Betelguese and Meissa and around half the distance.
The Club of Orion
Orion’s club is held in his right (western) hand and is marked by 4 stars:
- The star marking the handle end of the club is a direct continuation from the elbow around 3 times the distance from Betelguese.
- A second star at the handle end is slightly to the east
- The club is approximately the same length as the arm of Orion and is at a 45 degree angle to the arm over his head. Two stars mark the club end that are slightly further apart than the handle end.
The Bow of Orion
Orion’s bow is held in his left (eastern) hand and is marked by 9 stars curved in the shape of the bow. The bow is parallel to his body and is slightly further from Orion than the width of his shoulders. The midpoint of the bow is shoulder height and the bow spans from his hip height to slightly above his head.
Orion in the Ancient World
Greek mythology of Orion
There are a variety of stories related to Orion from Greek mythology. Legends related to Orion were shared by spoken stories, with the earliest written record referencing Orion is in Homer’s Odyssey. It is thought that the poem was passed on for several centuries through oral tradition before it was first written in the 6th century BC.
Although there area a variety of conflicting stories, tales of Orion in mythology, revolve around him being the greatest hunter to ever exist. He was said to carry a solid bronze club and be capable of hunting any wild animal. Orion was a prominent figure of Greek legends similar to Hercules and many stories came to reference him as the archetype of the great huntsmen.
According to the Hesiod, Orion is the son of Poseidon. As the son of Poseidon he could walk on water and crossed the sea to the island of Chios. After becoming drunk and assaulting the king’s daughter, he was blinded as punishment. He travelled to Helios the sun god and had his sight returned. Later when hunting with Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting he claimed he would hunt every animal on earth. Gaia, the god of the earth then sent a giant scorpion to kill Orion to prevent him from killing all the animals of earth.
Orion Constellation family
Several constellations adjacent to Orion have come to incorporate a narrative that ties these constellations together. Both Canis Minor and Canis Major are said to be Orion’s hunting companions. The hare is said to be pursued by his dogs on a hunt. The bull of Taurus is said to be in battle with Orion. Orion is said to have been killed by the sting of a giant scorpion, and Scorpius is the stellar representative of this scorpion.
Main stars of Orion constellation
Rigel (0.18m, 772ly, 2m suns, #7)
Rigel from Arabic word for ‘left foot’ is the 7th brightest star visible from earth with an apparent magnitude of +0.18. The star is 772 light years from earth. It is a blue supergiant 2 million times the size of the sun. Rigel forms part of the winter hexagon asterism. Rigel marks Orion’s left foot.
Betelguese (0.42m,624ly, 2b suns, #10)
Betelguese from Arabic for ‘armpit of Jauzah’ is the 10th brightest star visible from earth with an apparent magnitude of +0.42. Betelguese is 624 light years from earth. It is a red supergiant almost 2 billion times the size of the sun. Betelguese is among the largest stars visible to the naked eye and if it were in the location of the sun would engulf Earth as well as Mercury, Venus and Mars. The name Jauzah was the Arabic name for the hunter Orion. Betelguese forms part of the winter triangle. Betelguese marks the right shoulder of Orion.
Bellatrix (1.64m, 245ly, 800 suns, #26)
Bellatrix from Latin for ‘female warrior’ is the 26th brightest star visible from earth with an apparent magnitude of +1.64. The star is 245 light years from earth. It is 800 times the size of the sun. Bellatrix marks the left shoulder of Orion.
Alnilam (1.69m,1342ly, 140k suns, #29)
Alnilam from Arabic for ‘string of” is the 29th brightest star visible from earth with an apparent magnitude of +1.69. The star is 1342 light years from earth. It is 140,000 times the size of the sun. Combines with Alnitak and Mintaka to form the Orion’s belt stars. Alnilam marks the central belt buckle of Orion.
Alnitak (1.88m, 800ly, triple star system, #33)
Alnitak from the Arabic for ‘girdle’ is the 33rd brightest star visible from earth with an apparent magnitude of +1.88. The star is 800 light years from earth. It is a triple star system led by a blue supergiant 33,000 times the size of the sun. Combines with Alnilam and Mintaka to form the Orion’s belt stars. Alnitak marks the western end of Orion’s belt and his right hip.
Saiph (2.07m, 650ly, 45k suns, #59)
Saiph from the Arabic for ‘sword’ is the 59th brightest star visible from earth with an apparent magnitude of +2.07. The star is 650 light years from earth. It is 45,000 times the size of the sun. Saiph marks the right foot of Orion.
Mintaka (2.20m, 916ly, multistar system, #67)
Mintaka from the Arabic for ‘belt’ is the 67th brightest star visible from earth with an apparent magnitude of +2.2. The star is 916 light years from earth. It is a multi star system led by a giant 19,000 times the size of the sun. Combines with Alnilam and Alnitak to form the Orion’s belt stars. Mintaka marks the eastern end of Orion’s belt and his left hip.
Meissa or Heka (3.47m, 1042ly, double star)
Meissa from Arabic for ‘shining one’ is also known as Heka also from Arabic for ‘white spot’. The star has an apparent magnitude of +3.47 and is 1042 light years from earth. It is a double star system led by a giant 4,200 times the size of the sun. Meissa marks the head of Orion.
Deep sky objects
Orion’s Nebula – Potentially the best known Nebula which is clearly not a single point of light, visible with the naked eye. Obvious that it is not a star without aides it has an apparent magnitude of +4 at a distance of 1344 light years
Orion Molecular Cloud Complex – Although not visible to the naked eye the cloud complex has a variety of observable objects with even a small telescope.
Wadi Rum is one of the best locations in the world to see the full beauty of the stars. With the combination of high altitudes, clear skies and no light pollution, you may be surprised how many stars that are visible to the naked eye. Come stay with us and spend a night under the stars.