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Never Be lost Under a Winter Sky: Finding North, South East and West from Orion "The Hunter"

Orion is one of the biggest and brightest constellations in the Northern Skies, and is visible for a large part of the year. Known as a winter constelation Orion, the hunter begins his nightly passage across the sky in November and can be seen through to February.

The constellation is easy to identify due to its distinctive 4 corner stars, and 3 belt stars in a diagonal line across the "waist"". In the picture you can clearly see the belt, sword and the 4 corner stars, though the sword can be harder to pick out depending on conditions.

Finding North- Using Orion to find Polaris, the North Star.

If a line is projected from Orion’s lower left corner star, through the upper left corner star ( a red giant called Betelgeuse, which appears orangey red to the naked eye) this line when continued across the heavens overhead will run very close to Polaris. The ancients saw the red giant as thehunters  right shoulder, and the upper right corner star as the left shoulder, and other stars describe a spear arm from the right shoulder, in a raised posiion, and the left arm extended holding a shield. The nearby constelation that follows orions arc through the sky was therefore seen as the hunting dog at Orions heel, hence their names Canis Major And Canis Minor, or Great Dog and Little Dog.

Having found Polaris, you can be confident that it is due north, the only place in the Northern hemisphere where this wont give you a direction is at the North Pole, where Polaris will be directly over head, and therefore every land direction will be South. However seeing North in the sky is one thing, but to give you something to accurately move towards on the horizon you need to relate Polaris to a visible mark in the distance, such as the silhouette of a hill or distinct tree. You can do this quickly and accurately with a plumb line (weighted length of string).


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Using Orion to find East and West

If we look again at the constellation Orion, pictured above, apart from helping to find Polaris and therefore North, this constellation also rises in the east and sets in the west as most stars tend to. However in the case of Orion, its more precisely east and west than most. Orion’s Belt, the narrow strip of three bright starts across the “waist” of Orion,  or more precisely, Mintaka, the first star in the belt to rise and sets does so very close to due east and due west, within 1 degree wherever you are in the world.

Finding South from Orion.

Orion has one more means of helping us on our way, and that is that the sword (the cluster of stars appearing to hang from Orion’s Belt) points roughly south. When at the highest point in Orion’s arc, the sword points to a point on the horizon very close to due south, it is less accurate lower in its arc.

Note on the equator it can be possible to see Polaris and the Southern Cross at opposite sides of the night sky making it hard to go wrong if familiar with navigating by the stars.

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