Orion the Hunter, the most recognizable constellation

Star chart of constellation Orion with stars labeled.
Orion the Hunter – visible to both hemispheres – rises in the east on December evenings.

Orion the Hunter is arguably the most recognizable constellation in the world. Orion lies on the celestial equator, making it visible from both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Orion’s shape is easy to pick out because of its many bright stars and signature Orion’s Belt: three stars close together in a nearly straight line.

Mythology of Orion the Hunter

In many drawings of the constellation Orion, the Hunter looks to be battling his neighbor, Taurus the Bull. Yet there is no such story in the mythology of Orion. Some stories have Orion pursuing the seven sisters of the Pleiades, which is a star cluster in the constellation Taurus. On the other side of Orion are his hunting dogs, Canis Major and Canis Minor. (Not to be confused with Canes Venatici, a different constellation with the actual nickname of the Hunting Dogs.)

Mythology says that a scorpion killed Orion; that’s why Orion is on one side of the sky while Scorpius the Scorpion is on the opposite side. As Scorpius is about to rise in the east, Orion makes a hurried exit from the sky in the west.

Antique colored etching of a man with a raised club holding a dead lion on his other arm.
Orion the Hunter, as depicted in Urania’s Mirror, a set of constellation cards from around 1825. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Brightest stars in Orion

The brightest star in Orion is the bluish Rigel, which marks his western knee or foot. Rigel is a blue supergiant 770 light-years away with a magnitude +0.2. Rigel is the seventh brightest star in the entire sky. The star marking the other knee or foot of Orion is Saiph, a magnitude 2.1 star. It’s a blue supergiant and 720 light-years distant.

The second brightest star in Orion is reddish-orange Betelgeuse, which marks one shoulder. Betelgeuse is the 10th brightest star in the sky at magnitude 0.5. It’s a red supergiant 550 light-years away and a whopping 800 times larger than our sun. If we substituted Betelgeuse for our sun, it would swallow up all the inner planets.

The third brightest star of Orion, which marks his other shoulder, is Bellatrix. Bellatrix, a blue supergiant shining at magnitude 1.6, is the 22nd brightest star in the sky and 245 light-years away.

Orion, with a fuzzy red semicircular nebula looping through it, over a campfire.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Amr Abdulwahab created this composite image of the constellation Orion the Hunter on January 1, 2023, in H-alpha. That wavelength explains why you can see the great red loop around Orion known as Barnard’s Loop. Amr wrote: “Orion is a prominent constellation located on the celestial equator and visible throughout the world. It is one of the oldest and most recognizable constellations, with its 3 main stars forming a distinctive ‘belt’ shape. These stars are named Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. The constellation also features several bright stars, including Betelgeuse and Rigel, as well as the Orion Nebula, a bright cloud of gas and dust where new stars are forming.” Thank you, Amr!

Other stars in Orion

Extending out from Bellatrix is Orion’s arm, where he is holding either a shield or an animal, depending on the artist’s concept. The brighter stars marking this object are all of 3rd and 4th magnitude.

Extending upward from Betelgeuse is Orion’s other arm, which holds a club or sword. The brightest stars in the arm and club are all 4th magnitude.

The stars that make up Orion’s head are a test of your sky’s darkness. They range from 3rd magnitude to 6th magnitude. The more stars you can see, the better your skies are.

The three Belt stars from east to west are Alnitak (magnitude 1.8), Alnilam (magnitude 1.7) and Mintaka (magnitude 2.2).

Long green line of a meteor above a beach, with constellation Orion and bright star Sirius below it.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Daniel Friedman captured this shot from Montauk, New York, on December 13, 2020. Note bright Sirius is on the left, and Orion’s Belt points to it. Thank you, Daniel!

Nebulae of Orion the Hunter

The stars in the Sword that hangs down from the Belt are part of the Orion Nebula (M42). You can see the nebula, or cloud of gas, without optical aid as a hazy, 4th-magnitude patch. Using magnification reveals a quadruple star at the center of the nebula. These four newborn stars – the Trapezium Cluster – light up their dusty cocoon, making its glow visible to us here on Earth, a vast 1,400 light-years away.

The famous Horsehead Nebula lies near the Belt star Alnitak. This dark nebula is a faint target even for most amateur telescopes; your best bet is to view it in a picture compliments of an astrophotographer. (Learn more about dark nebulae.)

Along Orion’s side between Alnitak and Betelgeuse (but closer to the belt stars) is the 8th-magnitude nebula M78. M78 has the awkward title of “brightest diffuse reflection nebula in the sky.” One more notable nebula in Orion is near Rigel and crosses into Eridanus the River. IC 2118, the Witch Head Nebula, is extremely faint but also extremely large, spanning six full moons.

EarthSky Community Photos of Orion

Prolific, complex swirls of bright purple, red, and blue clouds with many bright stars.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Harshwardhan Pathak of India used a large remote telescope in Australia to capture the Orion Nebula on October 5, 2023. Harshwardhan wrote: “Popularly called the Orion Nebula, this stellar nursery has been known to many different cultures throughout human history. The nebula is only 1,400 light-years away, making it the closest large star-forming region to Earth … This is the target which every astrophotographer wants to shoot in winter’s night sky.” A beautiful capture. Thank you, Harshwardhan!
Orange cloud of gas with a dark, horsehead-shaped indentation. Many stars, several very bright.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Tameem Altameemi in the Ras Al Khaimah Mountains, United Arab Emirates (UAE), captured this telescopic view of the Horsehead Nebula in the constellation Orion on November 18, 2023. Tameem wrote: “My astrophotography from the sky of UAE. The Flame Nebula designated as NGC 2024 and Sh2-277, is an emission nebula in the constellation Orion. It is about 900 to 1,500 light-years away, and The Horsehead Nebula, a small dark nebula in the constellation Orion.” Thank you, Tameem!

Bottom line: Orion the Hunter may be the most recognizable constellation in the world. And it’s visible from the north in winter and from the south in summer.

Read more: Orion the Hunter is easy to spot

December 24, 2023

Like what you read?
Subscribe and receive daily news delivered to your inbox.

Your email address will only be used for EarthSky content. Privacy Policy
Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.

More from 

Kelly Kizer Whitt

View All