A detailed list of the contents within Orion.
Orion is a prominent constellation located on the celestial equator and visible throughout the world. It is one of the most conspicuous and recognizable constellations in the night sky. It was named after Orion, a hunter in Greek mythology. Its brightest stars are Rigel (Beta Orionis) and Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis), a blue-white and a red supergiant respectively. Many of the other brighter stars in the constellation are hot, blue supergiant stars. The three stars in the middle of the constellation form an asterism known as Orion’s belt. The Orion Nebula is located south of Orion’s belt.
- Betelgeuse, known alternatively by its Bayer designation Alpha Orionis, is a massive M-type red supergiant star nearing the end of its life. When it explodes it will even be visible during the day. It is the second brightest star in Orion, and is a semiregular variable star. It serves as the “right shoulder” of the hunter it represents (assuming that he is facing the observer), and is the eighth brightest star in the night sky.
- Rigel, which is also known as Beta Orionis, is a B-type blue supergiant that is the sixth brightest star in the night sky. Similar to Betelgeuse, Rigel is fusingheavy elements in its core and will pass its supergiant stage soon (on an astronomical timescale), either collapsing in the case of a supernova or shedding its outer layers and turning into a white dwarf. It serves as the left foot of Orion, the hunter.
- Bellatrix was designated Gamma Orionis by Johann Bayer, but is known colloquially as the “Amazon Star”. It is the twenty-seventh brightest star in the night sky. Bellatrix is considered a B-type blue giant, though it is too small to explode in a supernova. Bellatrix’s luminosity is derived from its high temperature rather than its radius, a factor that defines Betelgeuse. Bellatrix serves as Orion’s left shoulder.
- Mintaka garnered the name Delta Orionis from Bayer, even though it is the faintest of the three stars in Orion’s Belt. Its name means “the Giant’s belt”. It is a multiple star system, composed of a large B-type blue giant and a more massive O-type white star. The Mintaka system constitutes an eclipsing binary variable star, where the eclipse of one star over the other creates a dip in brightness. Mintaka is the westernmost of the three stars of Orion’s Belt, as well as the northernmost.
- Alnilam is designated Epsilon Orionis, a consequence of Bayer’s wish to name the three stars in Orion’s Belt (from north to south) in alphabetical order. Also called Al Nathin, Alnilam is named for the Arabic phrase meaning “string of pearls”. Alnilam is a B-type blue supergiant; despite being nearly twice as far from the Sun as Mintaka and Alnitak, the other two belt stars, its luminosity makes it nearly equal in magnitude. Alnilam is losing mass quickly, a consequence of its size; it is approximately four million years old.
- Alnitak, meaning “the girdle”,was designated Zeta Orionis by Bayer, and is the easternmost star in Orion’s Belt. It is a triple star some 800 light years distant, with the primary star being a hot blue supergiant and the brightest class Ostar in the night sky.
- Saiph was designated Kappa Orionis by Bayer, and serves as Orion’s right foot. It is of a similar distance and size to Rigel, but appears much fainter, as its hot surface temperature (46,000°F or 26,000°C) causes it to emit most of its light in the ultraviolet region of the spectrum.
Of the lesser stars, Hatsya (or Iota Orionis) forms the tip of Orion’s sword, whilst Meissa (or Lambda Orionis) forms Orion’s head. Iota Orionis is also called Nair al-Saif, Arabic for “the brightest in the sword”.
Hanging from Orion’s belt is his sword, consisting of the multiple stars θ1 and θ2 Orionis, called the Trapezium and the Orion Nebula (M42). This is a spectacular object that can be clearly identified with the naked eye as something other than a star. Using binoculars, its clouds of nascent stars, luminous gas, and dust can be observed. The Trapezium cluster has many newborn stars, including several brown dwarfs, all of which are at an approximate distance of 1,500 light-years. Named for the four bright stars that form a trapezoid, it is largely illuminated by the brightest stars, which are only a few hundred thousand years old. Observations by the Chandra X-ray Observatory show both the extreme temperatures of the main stars—up to 60,000 Kelvin—and the star forming regions still extant in the surrounding nebula.
M78 (NGC 2068) is a nebula in Orion. With an overall magnitude of 8.0, it is significantly dimmer than the Great Orion Nebula that lies to its south; however, it is at approximately the same distance, at 1600 light-years from Earth. It can easily be mistaken for a comet in the eyepiece of a telescope. M78 is associated with the variable starV351 Orionis, whose magnitude changes are visible in very short periods of time. Another fairly bright nebula in Orion is NGC 1999, also close to the Great Orion Nebula. It has an integrated magnitude of 10.5 and is 1500 light-years from Earth. The variable star V380 Orionis is embedded in NGC 1999.
Besides these nebulae, surveying Orion with a small telescope will reveal a wealth of interesting deep-sky objects, including M43, M78, as well as multiple stars including Iota Orionis and Sigma Orionis. A larger telescope may reveal objects such as Barnard’s Loop and the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024), as well as fainter and tighter multiple stars and nebulae.
All of these nebulae are part of the larger Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, which is located approximately 1,500 light-years away and is hundreds of light-years across. It is one of the most intense regions of stellar formation visible in our galaxy.