Saturday, April 13, 2013

Master Guide Secrets: The Stars – Part 3

Orion – Pathway to Home 

Hubble view of the Great Nebula in Orion

Dark heavy clouds came up, and clashed against each other. The atmosphere parted and rolled back; then we could look up through the open space in Orion, whence came the voice of God. The holy city will come down through that open space. - -Christian Experience and Teachings of Ellen G. White, page 111.

A lot of people have made fun of that passage as pure fantasy, objecting to the idea that there even is an “open space” in the great nebula. After all, astronomers haven’t found any such thing……………….

Shuffle forward a few years till the Hubble Space Telescope turned its eyes on Orion. 

“Packed into the center of this region are bright lights of the Trapezium stars, the four heftiest stars in the Orion Nebula. Ultraviolet light unleashed by these stars is carving a cavity in the nebula and disrupting the growth of hundreds of smaller stars. The dark speck near the bottom, right of the image is a silhouette of an edge-on disk encircling a young star. Another whitish-looking disk is visible near the bottom, left, just above the two bright stars. This disk is encased in a bubble of gas and dust.”

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics includes this notation under "Orion Nebula":

"Some of these collapsing stars can be particularly massive, and can emit large quantities of ionizing ultraviolet radiation. An example of this is seen with the Trapezium cluster. Over time the ultraviolet light from the massive stars at the center of the nebula will push away the surrounding gas and dust in a process called photo evaporation. This process is responsible for creating the interior cavity of the nebula, allowing the stars at the core to be viewed from Earth." -Source. See also Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Once when Joseph Bates was preaching he described the Great Nebula in Orion as one of the great wonders of God's creation.  After the sermon, Ellen White, who was present at the meeting,  approached Elder Bates and told him she had seen that very thing in vision and that she believed the light shining from the Great Nebula shone from heaven itself.

So Orion is, to Seventh-day Adventists, a special place. I always get a thrill in my heart whenever I locate the Great Nebula in my telescope.  Here’s how to find it.

Like last week’s constellation, the Big Dipper, Orion is one of the most distinctive constellations in the night sky.  Because it is close to the ecliptic (the apparent path of the Sun on the celestial sphere as seen from the Earth's center) Orion is visible in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

Located between the zodiac constellations Aries and Taurus and a bit south of them, Orion is a distinct four-sided box of very bright stars.  Unlike most constellations, Orion looks rather like the mythological character it is named after – Orion the hunter.  The stars trace the body of a great hunter with a shield, raised arm and a sword that hangs from a starry belt.   It is most visible in the Northern Hemisphere during the winter months and during the summer months in the Southern hemisphere. 

Orion and its neighboring constellations provide a wealth of celestial objects to look at.  Let’s start first with the stars that make up the constellation itself.  

Orion is very distinct against its background of stars
Meissa, located above the Orion quadrangle where the head would be, is actually a double star with an outlying brown dwarf companion star.  It is surrounded by a gas ring which may be the remnant of another companion that went supernova.  

At Orion’s right shoulder (your left) lies Betelguese (“BAY-tell-jewz”), a bright reddish-orange star. It’s that color because it has expanded and become a massive M-type supergiant star.  Having burned through most of its nuclear fuel, Betelguese will one day explode and become a supernova that will be so bright it will cast a shadow at night and be visible in the daytime for several weeks.  No one knows when this will happen.  It could happen eons from now or next week.  It may already have happened and the light just hasn’t quite reached us yet.  No one really knows. Betelgeuse is the eighth brightest star and second brightest in Orion.

Orion’s left shoulder  is marked by another of Orion’s stars that has given its name to a movie villain.  Bellatrix is a B-type blue giant and 27th brightest star in the sky.  Though too small to go supernova, Bellatrix shines brightly thanks to its very high temperature. 

Two blue-white colored stars mark Orion’s feet.  The one on Orion’s left and our right is Rigel (Rye-jel), the sixth brightest star in the sky and brightest in Orion.  Rigel is actually a triple star system.  The primary star, Rigel A, is a blue-white supergiant.  Rigel B, it’s companion, is itself a spectroscopic binary star made up of two blue-white stars revolving around each other. You can see A and B in most backyard telescopes if you look closely.
Orion’s right foot (the lower left star of the rectangle) is is a less well know star (no movie villains have yet been named after it).  Saiph is about the same size and distance as Rigel, but its surface temperature causes it to emit more light in the ultraviolet range and so appears less bright than Rigel.  

The three stars lined up in a tidy row in the center of the quadrangle formed by Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Rigel and Saiph mark Orion’s Belt distinctly.  These stars are named Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. The astronomer who catalogued them, Johann Bayer named them alphabetically from left to right as you look at the constellation.  The belt lies nearly on top of the celestial equator.  

Through an Earth bound telescope the Orion Nebula looks like this.
If you look closely you’ll see the prize find of the Orion group.  What appear to be three dim stars hang down from the belt to form Orion’s sword.  The middle star appears kind of fuzzy. That’s because the middle star isn’t exactly a single star.  It is the Great Nebula in Orion.  There are other nebulae in the region including the distinctive Horsehead nebula.  All are well worth looking at, but the Great Nebula is the one Ellen White spoke about.  The great nebula looks like a small bright flower in an ordinary telescope.  The Hubble Space Telescope has produced an incredibly detailed series of pictures of the Great Nebula.  The Nebula is a great glowing cloud of gas and dust and baby stars.  It seems that the Orion Nebula is one of those places in the universe where brand-new stars are created.  Rather what one would expect the vicinity of  a portal to heaven to be like.

Orion As a Guidepost:

Like the Big Dipper, the constellation Orion can help you find your way to other bright stars and constellations. 

If you draw an arrow from Rigel to Betelgeuse and keep going, you’ll find your way to two bright stars – Castor and Pollux found in Gemini, the Twins. 

Draw a line through the 3 stars of the belt and go to your left and you will come to the brightest star in the night Sky – Sirius the Dog Star.  Sirius is the most noticeable star in the constellation Canis Major or the Big Dog.  If you draw a line from Bellatrix through Betelgeuse and keep going you’ll run into Procyon, the brightest star in Canis Minor (The Little Dog).  These two constellations are Orion’s hunting dogs.

Draw a line to your right through the three belt stars and you’ll come to a bright reddish star called Aldeberan, a red giant that marks the “eye of the bull” in the Constellation Taurus.  Aldeberan is the brightest of the stars in the open cluster that makes up Taurus.  There are five faint stars so close to Aldeberan that astronomers consider them companion stars.
If you keep going on from Taurus, you will you come to the most noticeable of the open star clusters – the Pleiades or Seven Sisters.  The constellation is quite distinct.  It looks like the picture to the left when you look at it with the naked eye.

With even a small telescope you can see a breath-taking jumble of stars if you turn it on the Pleiades.  The whole area is densely packed with stars and wispy nebulae. It’s guaranteed to get you a “pretty cool” from your Pathfinders when you show it to them.
The Pleiades close up

Like the Big Dipper, Orion sits in the middle of five easy-to-find constellations including:
  • Orion itself
  • Canis Major
  • Canis Minor
  • Taurus the Bull
  • The Pleiades
The Horsehead Nebula

There are several fainter and harder to find constellations in or near Orion.  There’s Lepus the Hare, Eridanus the River, Monoceros the Unicorn and Fornax the Furnace. These are much harder to trace, but will give your kids some exercise with a star map if you'd like to teach your group how to use star maps.

You might want to cast around near the Great Nebula and see if you can spot the distinctive Horsehead NebulaYou can find it just south of Alnitak, the most easterly star in Orion's belt.  It's made up of a swirling cloud of dark dust and gas set against a glowing backdrop.  The dark cloud looks just like a horse head sticking up out of a cloud. You can see it clearly in the photograph at the right.

If you consult a star chart you'll see other galaxies and nebulae marked with an "M" and a number.  These objects were originally identified and cataloged in the Messier Catalog.  Messier included pretty much all of the galaxies and nebula you can see with a small telescope in his catalog. There are many other nebulae, galaxies and star clusters that have been cataloged as telescopes have improved and given NGC (New General Catalog) numbers.

Take your time.

Set aside an entire night of star-gazing just for Orion and another for the Big Dipper and its companions.  As natural guideposts and very distinct constellations, these two constellations are the first ones you want to become familiar with if you're new to astronomy.

If you want to bone up on astronomy yourself there's a college introductory workbook and companion software called Red Shift that you can still find on Amazon and other places. It was written by the late Bill O. Walker (Bo Walker), former director of the Tyler Junior College Planetarium and an elder at the Tyler SDA Church in Tyler, Texas.  I've seen it on Amazon as a used book.  Bo was a friend of mine and I used to love to listen to him talk about the stars. I learned to love star gazing at Lone Star Camp as a staff member when Bo was our nature instructor.  We spent a lot of late nights with other staffers sitting out on the boat dock underneath a clear Texas sky, waiting till Orion finally came up over the eastern horizon.  I always look for him whenever the night sky is clear.


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