Yuri Beletsky, an astronomer and nightscape astrophotographer based in Chile, shared this spectacular photo of Orion bounding over one of the Moai figures on Easter Island. The towering stone figures were carved by the Rapa Nui people between the years 1250 and 1500 A.D. More than 900 were fashioned from stone from a nearby quarry; the tallest stands 33 feet (10 meters) high and weighs 82 tons. Yuri describes what it felt like being there that night:
“King of the night … Mysterious night at Easter Island in the southern Pacific. And only statues of Moai are always awake, looking into the starry sky. When you are staying next to those giants at night it’s difficult to describe the atmosphere — it’s truly incredible and spiritual. Orion as well as Sirius are glowing above illuminating the landscape with bluish soft light. This is the real magic of the Island.”
Makes you want to give your two weeks notice, head for the South Pacific and start all over again.
Orion looks different from how we see it in the northern hemisphere. From our perspective, the constellation’s upside down. Instead of orange-red Betelgeuse at the top, it shines from the bottom. The little pink cloud above the Belt in the photo hangs below the Belt from Cincinnati. Many familiar constellations in the southern sky as viewed from mid-northern latitudes rise higher as one travels south, eventually cross the overhead point called the zenith and then move into the northern sky. Once they’re past the zenith and standing in the northern sky, we have to physically turn around to see them.
Guess what happens when you do? The pattern that stood straight up w
hen viewed in the southern sky is now upside down. Only if your back were made of rubber, allowing you to bend all the way backwards to see the northern sky while still facing south, would the constellations preserve their familiar orientation. Way too painful — not gonna do it.
Orion’s Belt straddles the celestial equator, which is a projection of Earth’s equator into the heavens. If you live on the equator, the celestial one starts at the due east point of the horizon, arcs straight up through the zenith and then drops straight down to the due west point. That means that from parts of countries like Ecuador, Brazil, Kenya and Indonesia, the Belt passes directly overhead. Wouldn’t it be nice to lie on your back and see those three-in-a-row stars beam straight down into your eyes?
From latitudes of 10 degrees and more south of the equator, all of Orion is in the northern sky and upside down, a freaky sight for first-time southern hemisphere skywatchers.
This morning I was a search for star clusters in Cepheus the King, a constellation of the northern sky. But I couldn’t help turning around to admire Orion, standing high in the southern sky. What a magnificent constellation whether upside down, right side up, sideways or even mirror-reversed if you like!