If you look towards the west just after sunset this February you will see a very bright star in the darkening sky. Known as the Evening Star, brilliant Venus steals the celestial show. After the Moon, Venus is the next brightest object in the sky. Higher in the heavens and to the left of Venus is Jupiter, king of the planets, also shining brightly.
These two ‘wandering stars’ move closer together in the sky as the month progresses and by the end of February are very noticeably closer in the sky. A bit like lovers running towards each other in slow motion ( like in the movies) they continue their mutual approach until in mid March they pass in the sky (unlike the lovers in the movies). Keep an eye on this cosmic romance.
Mars is now visible in the east. It is high in the sky by the middle of the month and can be found below Leo the Lion. Cast your eye further to the east and a little lower towards the horizon where Lord of the Rings, Saturn, is visible just to the left of Spica, the brightest star in Virgo.
Orion the Hunter, one of the most easily recognised constellations, continues to be prominent in the southern sky. Three medium bright stars mark his famous belt. Above the belt is the giant red star Betelgeuse which has been in the news recently as it may go supernova any time now or in the next million years! But don’t panic, rumours of this superstar’s demise have been exaggerated.
Below the belt we find a different type of star, the young very hot star, Rigel, which indicates the knee of the hunter. Orion’s shield and mighty club held up over his head are readily seen in dark skies. Hanging down from Orion’s belt is his sword, a trio of faint stars. It is in this area of space that we find one of the most well known and exciting nebulae in the heavens, the Great Orion Nebula or M42. One of the most beautiful sights in nature the Orion Nebula is approximately 1 500 light years from Earth and spans about 20 light years. The nebula is actually the middle “star” in the sword and appears as a fuzzy spot to the naked eye. This is a massive star forming factory. Hundreds of baby stars are reside in this area of space.
Orion is a very useful celestial signpost. To locate Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, imagine continuing the line of the Hunter’s belt down the sky towards the horizon until you come to a very bright star. You have arrived at Sirius( the Dog Star) and also found Canis Major, Orion’s great hunting dog. More on Canis Major and the brightest sparkler in the sky, Sirius can be found here. A line eastwards from Betelgeuse marks Procyon, one of two stars that represent Orion’s little dog, Canis Minor. The ancient Greeks had great imaginations! Head west and slightly higher in the sky and you will arrive at Aldebaran, the fiery eye of Taurus the bull. A line from Rigel through Betelgeuse points to Castor and Pollox, the famous celestial sailors who look like two stickmen in the sky.
I think the hunter Orion is the most beautiful pattern in the night sky. It is no surprise that this distinctive group of bright stars has been the subject of many myths and legends worldwide. According to ancient Greek mythology Orion was a bit of a lad. He had his heart set on getting his amorous way with the seven beautiful sisters who had to be placed in the heavens to get them away from his unwelcome advances. They are the best known star cluster in the sky, the Pleiades or Seven Sisters.
There is a well known story that Orion met his death from the deadly sting of the scorpion while engaged in battle. Then both the scorpion and Orion were placed in the heavens as a great honour.
Our readers in the southern hemisphere share many constellations with us including Orion the Hunter. In the southern hemisphere, Orion appears to be standing on its head. The Australian Aboriginal people who are regarded by many as the world’s oldest astronomers have quite a collection of night sky stories including many about Orion.
Although some Australian Aboriginals also saw it as a hunter I am going to tell you about a story from Arnhem Land which is in the Northern Territory. Here the constellation of Orion is called Julpan and is seen as a canoe. The story goes that three brothers went fishing, but weren’t able to catch anything but kingfish. It was forbidden under their law to eat this fish. However, one of the brothers broke the rule and ate one. The sun saw this happen and got so angry that she blew them and their canoe up into the sky – where you can see them still. What we know as Orion’s belt represents the three brothers. The Orion Nebula above them (remember we are talking about the southern hemisphere) is the forbidden fish; and the bright stars Betelgeuse and Rigel are the bow and stern of the canoe. This is an example of an astronomical legend underpinning the ethical and social codes that the people were expected to live by.
The stellar stories of the Aboriginals reflect their everyday life. The kangaroo and the boomerang are central to their lives. To the Boorong people of Victoria the star we call Capella, is called Purra and represents a kangaroo. Two hunters, Wanjel and Yuree, known to us as Castor and Pollux, are chasing Purra. It is interesting that single stars represent people and animals in Aboriginal celestial lore. In Greek mythology this is rare, an exception being The Pleiades, where a star represents each sister. The Boorong called Sirius Warepil and it represents the male Wedge-tailed Eagle. Rigel in Orion, is known as Collowgullouric Warepil, the wife of Warepil, and represents the female of the species.
Of course as well as the stars and ‘wandering stars’ we must not forget about the most obvious object in the night sky, and indeed in the daytime sky at times also, the Moon. The Moon has been the inspiration for many myths and legends. Every child I know has questioned how the Moon got in the sky. Astronomers and scientists have various theories on this subject. As we are on an Aboriginal roll lets see what these peoples have to say on the subject. One Aboriginal story from Cape York provides us with the answer and also with a lesson in compassion. Long ago the people met to discuss the problem of the night darkness. Stumbling round in nocturnal confusion was a major hassle for both man and animal. After much debate it was agreed that a special boomerang should be made and put in the sky to take over ‘light’ duties when the sun went underground. The boomerang was made and all the strong men lined up to fling it into the sky. After many unsuccessful attempts at launching it a frail old man asked if he could have a go. Everyone laughed but a wise elder said he should be allowed a chance. To everyone’s surprise and delight the weak old man sent the boomerang high into the sky and it is still there. The shape of the boomerang can be seen in the Moon every month.
The starry sky and the stories it inspires are invariably fascinating. I have found the Aboriginal perspective particularly intriguing. I hope it has inspired you, the reader to look at the night sky and if you are already a dedicated stargazer maybe you will see something different in the familiar.
(Article by Mary Bulman)