The next clear night, step out anytime between 7 and 11 p.m. What draws your eye immediately? Probably Orion's Belt. This is usually the first celestial pattern that a child will notice; it was, for me. And what better place to start strolling the boulevards of the universe? More than merely lovely and obvious, the three-stars-in-a-row are not only universally admired, but they also float like a navigational buoy in the middle of the sky.
Can the sky have a "middle?" Yes, because Orion's Belt - that most famous article of cosmic clothing - sits smack on the celestial Equator, meaning that it floats directly over the Equator of Earth. Only stars in that location are seen by everyone everywhere. A star over one of the Poles - the North Star, say - is forever cloaked from people of the opposite hemisphere, obstructed by Earth itself. From here, about a fourth of the Cosmos never rises. Major luminaries forever concealed from our view include the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri; the night's second-brightest star, Canopus; and the Southern Cross. But equatorial constellations are the lingua franca of space. Orion's Belt, straddling the Equator like a diplomat, is prominent right now around the world.
The Hunter's stars are not scattered randomly. Most share the same awesome 1,200-light-year distance, forming a lavish association of blue suns of arc-welder intensity. Merely 1/1000th the age of our Sun, these infants were born together from an immense cloud of gas. The blue suns of Orion belong to a spur of the Perseus arm of the Milky Way: the next spiral arm outward from our own.
Binoculars pointed at Orion's Belt show it immersed in a multitude of little stars, like a swarm of fireflies. In rural areas like ours, this faint cluster stands out with just the naked eye. Go ahead: Let your eyes dark-adapt for a few minutes and then give it a try. If you have kids -whose vision is usually much better than ours - ask them, "Do you see lots of little stars right there in Orion's Belt?" Your local sky, and your eyes, pass the purity test if you can perceive this faint unnamed star cluster intertwined in the Belt of Orion.
Just above the Belt stands pumpkin-colored Betelgeuse, and just below it shines blue-white Rigel. Both are among the most luminous in the galaxy. Now follow the Belt itself down and to the left to a dazzling blue-white star: the brightest star in all the heavens. Yes, this is the Dog Star, Sirius.
Finally, if it's after 7:30, look way to the left of Orion, to the east, and find a lowish, bright orange star that almost rivals Sirius. This is Mars! For the next two weeks it will hover at its closest to Earth of the year. Retrograding now into the faint constellation of Cancer, it looks intriguing to the naked eye, and forms a wonderful orange-and-blue contrast with Sirius. But it's a dud through a telescope. If you have binoculars, that's another story: Sweep them around, above and right of Mars, until you find the gorgeous star cluster in Cancer called the Beehive.
There: What did it take, ten minutes? And you've taken in (and hopefully shared) some of the loveliest objects in the heavens - at their best.