In my view, the best-looking group of constellations, what I call “Orion’s gang,” has taken full control of southeastern portion of the early Shamokin evening sky. You can’t help but notice that congestion of bright stars.

Nowhere else in the night sky at any other time of the year will you witness such a congested field of bright stars. The constellation Orion the hunter is the head of the gang with its three bright stars lined up in a perfect row that depict his belt.

Ever since I was a kid, I thought of Orion more as an hourglass than a hunter, but that’s just me. What do you think?

Other constellations in Orion’s gang include Auriga the chariot driver, Gemini the twins, Canis Major the big dog, Canis Minor the little dog, and Taurus the bull, the subject of this week’s Starwatch column.

As you view Orion’s gang in the early evening southeast sky, Taurus the bull is poised just to the upper right of Orion. The main part of the constellation resembles a small dim arrow pointed to the right. That arrow allegedly outlines the bull’s snout. Its brightest star, Aldebaran, with a subtle orange tinge to it, marks one of the bull’s eyes.

If you extend both arms of that little arrow back to the left with your mind’s eye, you’ll eventually run into two moderate stars that make up the tips of Taurus’ horns. One of the horn-tip stars, Elnath, actually belongs to the constellation Auriga.

Just above and a little to the right of Taurus’ face is the best open star cluster of the night sky any time of the year. It’s the Pleiades, a gravitationally bound group of hundreds of stars that were all born together out of the same enormous cloud of hydrogen gas around a hundred million years ago.

The Pleiades cluster is about 70 light years in diameter and shines at us from more than 440 light years away, with just one light year equaling nearly 6 trillion miles.

To the naked eye, the Pleiades resembles a tiny and delightful little dipper. It’s not the same though as the actual Little Dipper constellation, also known as Ursa Minor, the little bear.

Most people can see at least six stars in the Pleiades, but folks with really sharp vision can see seven or even eight little shiners. Through a pair of binoculars or a small telescope, you can see many more stars. It’s a sight to behold — I never get tired of looking at it.

Seven little sisters

The Pleiades are also known as the “The seven little sisters,” one star for each of the sisters. According to Greek mythology, the sisters were the daughters of Atlas, the titan king of the gods until he was dethroned by Zeus and other young, power-seeking upstart gods.

In a not-so-friendly takeover, poor Atlas was forced to hold up the entire world on his shoulders for all eternity. Zeus had pity on his daughters, though, and let them live their lives in peace. Those ladies felt bad about their dad and stuck together for moral support.

When they were in their teens, Atlas had trained them to be hunters and that served them well. They liked to hunt at night by the light of the moon and, over time, Artemis, the goddess of the moon, befriended them and even joined them on many a night.

One night, while they were taking a break from hunting rabbits, the famous giant hermit hunter Orion spotted them in a clearing, laughing and playing. These were attractive young ladies and Orion very much wanted to get to get to know them. He wasn’t much for decorum, though, as he bolted into the field where the ladies were gathered. They saw Orion charging in and wisely chose not to have a meet-and-greet with him, but instead ran away as fast as they could. Orion was not detoured and he ran all the faster. Incredibly, this chase went on for seven years.

Their friend, Artemis, saw what was going on day after day and night after night and took great pity on her friends. She wasn’t powerful enough to stop Orion, so she sought out help from her father, Zeus, and tried to persuaded him to take action. Zeus listened very sympathetically and promised to come to the rescue.

Artemis expected Zeus to kill Orion, but that’s not what happened. Instead, he transformed the seven sisters into little stars and placed them in the heavens in a tight little cluster we still see this day. Orion’s chase was over.

Eventually, though, Zeus did have Orion killed because years after Orion’s marathon chase after the seven little sisters, Artemis actually took a liking to the mighty hunter and fell in love with him.

Apollo, the god of the sun and Artemis’ brother, saw what was going on and had to help end the fling. Romances between humans and gods were frowned upon. Apollo got word to his father, Zeus, and soon after, Orion’s days on Earth were over. The details of Orion’s demise are a story for another column.

When Artemis discovered the body of her dead boyfriend, she flung it into the night skies and magically transformed Orion into the great constellation we still see in the winter heavens. Artemis wasn’t all that careful, though, and Orion wound up in the celestial dome right next to the seven little sisters, the Pleiades.

To keep the constellation Orion from resuming his chase of the sisters, she found a large bull in a nearby pasture, transformed his body into stars and placed them in between Orion and the heavenly ladies. The constellation Taurus the bull has been protecting the daughters of Atlas ever since.

In next week’s Starwatch column, I’ll have a details on how to watch the total lunar eclipse or “blood moon” on the evening of Sunday, Jan. 20. Start praying for clear skies.

Celestial hugging this weekend

This weekend, the first quarter moon will have a close encounter with the planet Mars in the southwestern evening sky.

(Lynch is an amateur astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul.)

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