A Warm Cup Of Beetle Juice On A Cold Fall Night

The departing moon - shown for tonight- reveals Orion in the southeastern sky around 10 p.m. Created with Stellarium

After all these years I shouldn’t be surprised at seeing Orion leap from the east when  daylight saving time ends. Yet, there I was, out for a walk before the 10 o’clock news, and the Hunter was in my face. That one-hour fallback propelled Orion up an hour earlier than a week ago, putting his starry personage within sight of people who usually snooze after the news.

For southern hemisphere sky watchers, the rising of Orion must be a welcome sign of the summer season that lies ahead. No doubt Australians associate the constellation with searing heat, swimming outdoors and barbeques. As a northerner, Hunter travels his arc across the sky as the snow piles ever higher and trees pop from cold. I’m sorry, but it’s hard to imagine it any other way.

I don’t know what catches my eye first – the pattern of three stars in his belt or the bright orange twinkle of Betelgeuse. The question often comes up on how to pronounce this  star’s name. Officially it’s BET-el-jooz, but I’ve heard delightful variations like ‘beetle-juice’ and even BET-el-goys. The name is a corruption of the Arabic “yad al jauza,” or hand of al jauza, a mysterious female central figure from ancient times. Rigel (RYE-jil) is bluish white compared to Betelgeuse’s ruddy tone and named for the ‘foot’ of al-jauza the Central One.

While Rigel utterly dwarfs the sun (far left), Betelgeuse is big beyond belief. If put in place of the sun, Rigel would fill out to Mercury's orbit; Betelgeuse would reach beyond Jupiter! Credit: Dave Jarvis (with my own additions).

Though Orion’s brightest star, Rigel did not receive the ‘alpha’ designation you’d expect for a constellation’s brightest star. That honor went to Betelgeuse, which is a few tenths of a magnitude fainter. We know that Betelgeuse is a variable star with an unsteady light very different from our sun, whose rock-steady output we depend on for the continuity of life. It ranges over a full magnitude from 0.2 to 1.2 over a period of six months to many years. Perhaps Betelgeuse was brighter when brightness rankings were first doled out by the ancient Greeks.

Both Rigel and Betelgeuse are fantastically large and brilliant though dimmed, as are all stars, by the equally fantastic distances that separate one from the other. Betelgeuse is the closer at 495 light years, while Rigel beams from 860. Their powerful light gets jiggled by our atmosphere causing each to twinkle like snow crystals in moonlight. A hint of things to come.

Get acquainted with Orion. It’s one of those keystone constellations like the Great Bear. Once learned, the Hunter will help you track down many additional constellations and sights in the winter sky.

9 Responses

  1. John

    While I hate winter, that first sight of Orion each year thrills me. This year, it was an early morning in August. Couldn’t go back to sleep, but noticed it was clear and darkish, so went outside with the scope. I didn’t have any apps or star charts with me; just figured I’d see what I could see.

    Was packing up to go in as the sun was coming up when I spotted a series of stars in the southeast. My first thought was, “Hmmm, what’s that? Can’t be Orion’s belt this time of year.” But then I realized my mental calendar was off and it was indeed my favorite constellation. The rising sun washed out the nebula, but I saw a little puff. It was like an old friend was returning. I sat there watching it rise until the sun washed everything out.

    Fast forward to about a month ago. Similar situation where I couldn’t go back to sleep after getting up. Didn’t want to drag the scope out, but grabbed my image-stabilized binoculars instead, and fumbled around the porch for my reclining lawn chair. Walked out in the backyard, looked up, and there Orion was, upright and majestic against a nearly black sky. It was a great observing morning.

  2. Stephan

    Hi Bob,
    a nice story about Orion the Hunter…
    …and, in the Southern Hemisphere, Orion appears “upside down”. I noticed that once when travelling in Australia many years ago, around this time of year, when the Hunter appeared on the north-eastern horizon. There, Rigel forms the Hunter’s shoulder, while Betelgeuse is his “foot”. But, as the constellation is pretty symmetric, it was easily recognizable. While the Southern sky was full of very bright stars and many constellations unknown to me at the time, Orion formed kind of a “link” to the sky back in the North. I let my mind fly and thought that the folks back home might at that moment see the same constellation coming up, just the other way round.

    Greetings from Stuttgart, Germany

    1. astrobob

      Stephan and Carol,
      And thanks for your stories as well. I’ve been to the southern hemisphere once but not when Orion was out. I got to see Leo upside down and the planets at the zenith. Wonderful!

  3. caralex

    I was in Panama last February, and Orion dominated the sky there – in fact he was directly overhead, at the zenith! Of course, being so high, his belt pointed the way, via Sirius, to two stars I’d never seen before from the northern hemisphere – Canopus, shining high in the south, with Achernar further over to the west. A great experience, and a great memory to cherish!

  4. Jim Bennett

    HAND ASTERIZM in Orion
    The Severed Hand story of the Lakota Sioux involves their annual summer Sun Dance and the sacrifices made at that gathering each year around the solstice time. The reappearance of the Hand Star each fall assures that every ceremony was done correctly. The legend is old, as the Hand Stars are carved in the rock at the Jeffers Petroglyph site in Minnesota, near the pipestone quarrys that were used by all tribes in a peacefull and spiritual way. The Jeffers site is a flat exposure of Precambrian Quartsite, the size of ball field, alone in a flat prairie. Included in the hundreds of drawings are scratches from the mile of ice that traveled across the rock.
    The stars include the sword as the thumb, Rigel as the middle finger, the belt starrs as the bloody wrist, and possibly the shoulder starrs as the top of a guantlet glove, with several rings possible on the fingers. The Hand Star is also told by their bitter enemy Crow in some form.

    Most of this is from a paper bound book, Lakota Star Knowledge, along with much more. Another good book, The Stars We Know, is a really good first hand account of Crow astronomy.

  5. ifisher@hotmail.co.uk

    thanks for explaining the size of beetle juice , facinating , i have bought a cottage on moors above ramsbottom lancashire and i was wondering about it being so orane , thanks again .

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