Orion Meets The Moai Monoliths Of Easter Island

A Moai statue is silhouetted against a brilliantly starry sky on Easter Island earlier this week. From the island's latitude of 27 degrees south of the equator, Orion appears upside down compared to the northern hemisphere perspective. Credit: Yuri Beletsky
A Moai statue is silhouetted against a starry sky on Easter Island earlier this week. From the island’s latitude of 27 degrees south of the equator, Orion appears upside down compared to the northern hemisphere perspective. The bright star Sirius shines off the right. Credit: Yuri Beletsky

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:

Can you find Orion? It's directly above the Moai's head. At lower left is the Seven Sisters star cluster, also seen "upside down" from a northern perspective. Credit: Wally Pacholka
Another view of Orion directly above a Moai monolith taken at a slightly different time. At lower left is the Seven Sisters star cluster, also seen upside down from a northern perspective. Credit: Wally Pacholka

“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.

From Duluth, Minn. U.S., Orion stands about halfway up in the northern sky. This chart shows the full sky dome with directions indicated around the circle. Stellarium
From Duluth, Minn. U.S., Orion stands about halfway up in the northern sky. This chart shows the full sky dome with compass directions indicated around the circle. The constellations is due south and highest in the sky at the start of dawn in mid-October. Stellarium

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

As you travel south along the Earth's curvature, constellations in the southern sky appear to rise higher and higher. From Ecuador, Orion stands directly overhead
As you travel south along the curve of the Earth, constellations in the southern sky rise higher and higher. From Ecuador, Orion stands directly overhead with the celestial equator cutting across the Belt. Stellarium

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?

Orion moves well into the northern sky by the time you reach Sydney, Australia at latitude 33 degrees south. To see it without bending over backward, you have to turn around and face north, making the constellation appear upside down. (right panel.) Stellarium
Orion moves well into the northern sky by the time you reach Sydney, Australia at latitude 33 degrees south. To see it without bending over backward, you have to turn around and face north, making the constellation appear upside down. (right panel.) Stellarium

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.

From Duluth, Minn. Orion stands about halfway up in the southern sky
From Duluth, Minn. Orion stands about halfway up in the southern sky this morning Oct. 10. No matter how you see it, Orion’s one of the sky’s brightest and most striking constellations. At lower left, the star Sirius peeks out from behind a tree branch. Credit: Bob King

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!