An unforgettable journey off the shoulder of Orion

The Orion constellation and its gems: click on the image for high resolution.

The Orion constellation and its gems: click on the image for high resolution.

To inaugurate the new year in the best way, in the name of universal beauty, we propose a journey that will unveil, step by step, one of the most precious and elegant corners among the heavens. This journey will focus on the constellation of Orion, the lord of the winter sky, rightfully one of the most beloved.

The inspiration comes from an extraordinary astrophotographic project, once again the result of the valuable collaboration between the Virtual Telescope Project, which handled the data acquisition, and DeepLab, which managed their processing.

The entire constellation was captured through the wide-field and fast astrograph installed at the Virtual Telescope Project’s facility in Manciano, Tuscany Maremma, under the darkest skies of peninsular Italy. A mosaic composed of six tiles resulted in an incredible final image of around 300 megapixels.

Today’s presentation marks the first, introductory stage; more will follow, focusing on the numerous details and jewels presented in the original image, allowing us to admire them without compromise.

This is our way of wishing you a wonderful and thrilling 2024.

With the additional hope that you may meanwhile lose yourself in this inimitable cosmic garden.

During the long and frigid winter nights of the northern hemisphere, the celestial landscape is dominated by the most beautiful and elegant constellation in the entire sky: Orion, the legendary hunter.

Its stars, of unparalleled brightness, trace an unmistakable form: four stars at the corners of a large vertical rectangle frame three stars arranged obliquely, forming one of the most famous asterisms in the night sky, the Orion’s Belt. A head, a sword, a shield, and a club complete its graceful anthropomorphic figure, adorning it like no other constellation.

Being situated near the celestial equator, Orion is visible from nearly the entire globe, which has led to its reverence and consideration by all peoples of the Earth throughout history, alongside its undeniable beauty. It’s impossible to succinctly cite the references to this figure as they appear in every culture worldwide.
Often, it’s mentioned that its origins date back to the Sumerians, who saw their hero Gilgamesh within it; in Akkadian language, the constellation was called URU AN-NA (“Light of Heaven”), which evidently led to the name we know today. For the Egyptians, it was where the soul of Osiris rested, while his spouse Isis symbolized the shining Sirius, nestled in the Canis Major, southeast of the legendary hunter.
In the Greco-Roman world, these stars were associated with the myth of Orion, son of Poseidon and Euriale, daughter of Minos. He is the protagonist of a complex narrative and symbolism, culminating in the hero’s death, also rich in variants, often involving the notable zodiacal constellation Scorpius, whose sting was fatal to the god’s azure-haired son.

Alongside this cultural stature stands the beauty of the constellation itself and the swath of sky it occupies, crossed by the Milky Way. Just like the myth, it’s entirely impossible to celebrate its aesthetic essence in limited space. Merely gazing at Orion’s brightest gems leaves one spellbound by their brightness, often bluish hues, and the allure of their names.

Traditionally considered the brightest star is Betelgeuse, aptly named Alpha Orionis in Bayer’s nomenclature. Its name derives from the Arabic “the armpit of the Central One.” Positioned at the top-left corner of the constellation’s quadrilateral, it represents the hero’s right shoulder, with its visibly reddish color to the naked eye.
At an estimated distance of about 550 light-years from Earth, Betelgeuse is a red giant: its diameter, nearly 800 times that of the Sun, makes it one of the largest known stars, nearing the end of its days, which will culminate in a supernova explosion.

The brightest stars in Orion.

The brightest stars in Orion.

The brightness of Alpha Orionis is notably variable, at times with significant fluctuations, so much so that it is often surpassed by Rigel, a blue supergiant representing “the left leg of the Central One,” denoted by the Greek letter beta. Located approximately 850 light-years away, Rigel is one of the brightest stars in the entire solar neighborhood and stands out for its bluish hue, quite distinct from Betelgeuse’s. The two stars, positioned opposite the Belt, almost enhance each other’s marvelous and contrasting tones: a ruby and a diamond.

The other shoulder, the left one of the Hunter, is Bellatrix, the Amazon star, also known as Gamma Orionis, sometimes associated with the roar of a lion, an epithet referred to Rigel, which rises after the warrior’s star. It’s a blue giant, its color easily discernible to the naked eye.

The hero’s primary figure completes with the right foot, Saiph, at the bottom left in the sky, and notably, with the renowned Belt, composed – from left to right – by the stars Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka. This asterism, highly regarded in folk traditions, is known by many other names: the Magi, the Three Staves, and the Three Kings being only the most widespread.

The splendor of these stars, their colors, and their precious names would suffice to comprehend the millennium-old charm of the constellation. However, this allure has further enriched in the telescope era, as this instrument has revealed, among those first-rate gems, other treasures and more elusive wonders, yet with an equal, magnetic beauty.

Among all, the extraordinary Orion Nebula stands out, a vast cloud of hydrogen appearing in the direction of the hero’s Sword, actually an extensive stellar nursery, around 1500 light-years from Earth. Known since ancient times, it was observed in the early 17th century by Galileo Galilei through his telescope; however, the great Pisan scientist didn’t note its diffuse, non-stellar nature, although evident even to the naked eye.
The nebula, also known as Messier 42, is merely the tip of a submerged world. The entire region hosting the constellation is rich in colorful gaseous laceworks, distinguished by reddish tones, the signature of hydrogen emission, along with interstellar dust clouds that reflect the light of neighboring stars or even obscure those behind them, creating extraordinary dark contrasts, almost three-dimensional.

It’s necessary to mention the most famous dark nebula in the sky, namely the “Horsehead Nebula,” which seems to magically hang from the star Alnitak, almost dazzling it, characterized precisely by an inimitable silhouette resembling a steed. This “mirage” perspective is due to an opaque cloud that stands out against a reddish nebula.

This is only the first step of an adventure that promises to be exciting, full of contrasts, colors, fascinating lights and shadows.

A journey made possible not only by the passionate work of those involved in this complex capture but also thanks to the quality of the skies in the Grosseto Maremma region, in the Montauto locality, within the municipality of Manciano (GR), the most starry in the peninsula.

Happy viewing, until the next stage.

Gianluca Masi, Virtual Telescope Project
The DeepLab team

Technical Details

Field framed: approximately 780 square degrees (28 degrees x 28 degrees), 2×6 panels
Exposure: 2×40 minutes
Optics: Samyang 135mm at f/2.4
Camera: ZWO ASI6200MC Pro
Mount: Paramount ME
Location: Manciano (GR), Italy”

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