Mysteries and legends have always fascinated me, so it’s not surprising that Orion’s Beltplays a big part in my Legends of Origin sci-fi fantasy series, considering all the myths associated with it. Facts first, though: what is Orion’s Belt?
Orion’s Belt is a pattern of stars (an asterism) in the Orion constellation, easily recognisable by its three bright bluish stars, Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, which are often visualised as the belt of the legendary hunter, Orion. The Orion constellation, made up of myriad stars and nebulas, is located on the celestial equator – an imaginary equator in outer space that’s more or less in line with the terrestrial equator. Its location means that Orion can be seen from anywhere on Earth, which might explain why it was so important to so many ancient cultures that couldn’t have had any contact with each other. Its importance to ancient humans is evident in the way various ancient structures were built in alignment with the constellation’s stars, such as the Giza pyramids.
The names of the three stars forming Orion’s Belt are Arabic in origin, with Alnitak meaning ‘girdle’, Alnilam meaning ‘belt of pearls’ and Mintaka meaning ‘belt’. Scientists believe these three stars formed from one of the Orion constellation’s nebulas, at more or less the same time.
The dimmest of the three stars is Alnitak, and it has the same surface temperature and mass as Mintaka, which is a ‘super giant’ white-blue star brighter than the sun. Alnilam, also a white-blue ‘super giant’, is the centre star in Orion’s Belt, and also the brightest of these three stars.
The Orion’s Belt stars are systems of stars rather than single stars. ‘Super giant’ stars tend to have ‘sibling’ stars orbiting, as is the case for Alnilam and Mintaka. The Orion constellation also boasts a system of nebulas, the best known of which is the Horsehead Nebula. Orion’s nebulas have given astronomers much insight into how planetary systems and stars are formed from collapsing dust and gas clouds.
As already mentioned, the Orion constellation is often referred to as the mighty hunter, Orion. The second brightest of Orion’s stars, Betelgeuse, is seen as the hunter’s right shoulder, with Bellatrix as his left shoulder. In the centre of Orion’s sword, which hangs from his belt, is the Orion Nebula – a formation of hydrogen, dust, helium and other ionised gases. The star Meissa forms Orion’s head, and Hatsya is at the tip of his sword, while Rigel is at his left knee, and Saiph his right knee (or his feet, according to some sources). The hunter’s arms are ‘marked off’ by other bright stars, with one arm holding a shield and the other a club.
Astronomers now know that the Orion constellation boasts over 3000 stars, and it’s believed that, billions of years ago, planets and stars may have formed here, giving credence – it seems – to some ancient legends about the origins of humanity.
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All images in this post are courtesy of Pixabay and NASA.