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n November, when I leave my home in Missoula during the predawn to hunt elk, two things I know: the constellation of Orion will twinkle in the crisp cold overhead and a respectable whitetail buck will be bedded in my front yard watching me. What follows is a guide that mostly orbits the former, a hunter himself with quite a colorful past. To acquaint yourself with Orion, take a look at page 70. If you’re not familiar with the constellation, we’ve connected the dots for you. The three tightly-knit stars across the middle form the hunter’s belt. With a little imagination, the brightest stars form shoulders, knees. Imagine his left arm holds a bow, a shield or severed lion’s head. The right arm raised above his head, poised to strike. Our name for Orion, in fact nearly all of the names for our constellations, originates
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hike into elk
PHOTO: JAKE MOSHER / INSET ILLUSTRATION: WELLCOME LIBRARY, LONDON
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Orion M78 M50 M42
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PHOTO: JAKE MOSHER / INSET PHOTO: NASA, ESA, M. ROBBERTO (STSCI/ESA) ET AL.
This photo taken by the Hubble telescope shows a barred‑spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way Galaxy. This galaxy, known as NGC 1300, is 61 million light years away.
PHOTO, TOP RIGHT: HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM, ESA, NASA / ILLUSTRATION: ADAM CUERDEN-WIKIMEDIACC
in southern Iraq, which in 3,000 B.C. was known as Sumeria in southern Mesopotamia. Over time, the Arabic names have been altered to fit the dialects of the cultures that borrow from them, including the ancient Greeks. Ancient Greek theology had a god for just about everything. These gods made up their heaven and earth, and they could be as fickle and pretentious as us mortals. Orion’s saga is no exception. In one of many versions of Orion’s story, Poseidon, the god of the sea, is his father, and mom is the mortal daughter of King Minos of Crete—making Orion technically a demi-god. Regardless, Orion got drunk one night and tried to have his way with a
royal princess. The princess’ father caught him, blinded him and sent him wandering in the darkness. Another god took pity on the blinded Orion and gave him a servant to guide him to the sun god who restored his sight. After all that, one might think Orion would leave well enough alone and change his ways. It wasn’t to be. He found his way to Crete where he became an early-day hunting celebrity. He enjoyed killing and killed all he could, encouraged by Artemis, the goddess of the wild. Orion proclaimed he would slay every animal on earth, and when Gaia the earth goddess heard this, she was enraged at both his claim and his hubris. She sent a scorpion to murder Orion by stinging his heel. Now, the constellations of Orion and Scorpio live eternally (and safely) opposite each other in the night sky. While we borrow our modernday constellations from the ancient Greeks, they don’t have exclusive rights to any of them, especially Orion. Other cultures see different things. The Carib people of northern South America see in Orion’s star grouping an adventurous love triangle. An ancient Chinese myth tells of Orion and Scorpio as feuding brothers who continually chase one another through the seasons. The Lakota of North America see not a man, but a hand. Orion’s belt forms the wrist while the rest of the bright stars form fingers. Why a hand exists in the heavens is explained with yet another cautionary tale on how one should not behave.
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Hunter’s Telescope If you’re an elk hunter, chances are you have a pair of binoculars close at hand. Once the sun sets, don’t put them away because they easily double as a telescope. In fact, many large deep‑sky objects look better in binoculars than in a telescope because of a larger field-of-view. If you have some sort of tripod for your glass, be sure to use it. If you’re smart and hunting during a new moon, this is going to bring the stars out in all their glory. Just as you can’t see as many stars in a city thanks to light pollution, so too does the moon dilute your chance to see all the galaxy has to offer. It takes between 30 minutes to an hour for our eyes to fully adapt to darkness. If there is one flash of light from a lighter or a flashlight, the waiting game starts over. To avoid this, astronomers use a red flashlight if they need to refer to star charts. Thankfully, most hunting headlamps come with an assortment of color filters, including red.
According to Lakota legend, a chief gets his arm torn from his shoulder by Thunderbirds because he was being selfish and refused to make divine offerings. A young chief who wishes to marry the daughter of the de-limbed chief must first recover his severed hand. The young man goes on a hero’s journey through the Black Hills, meeting spirits that give him powers to defeat the mighty Thunderbirds. He recovers the hand, marries the girl and lives happily ever after. The emergence of the hand every fall signifies that sacrifices made during the summer solstice were accepted, and renewed life will once again return in the spring. For tens of thousands of years, humans have been creating tales to explain not just Orion’s meaning in the universe, but their own as well. The game changed once astronomers started to use telescopes 400 years ago. Since then, telescopes like Hubble, launched in 1990, peer deep into space sending back more images and raising more questions than answers. While some of the charm embodied in folklore may be lost to science, the heavens still remain a very magical place.
Where stars are born
Nearly 40 years ago, scientist Carl Sagan published Cosmos, an engaging book written in a way that broke the universe down into manageable pieces, bringing it into living rooms all over the world. It spawned a TV series and was at the time the bestselling science book ever published in the English language. In that book, there is a section on stars that helps explain the sheer magnitude of our universe: “A handful of sand contains about 10,000 grains, more than the number of stars we can see with the naked eye on a clear night. But the number of stars we can see is only the tiniest fraction of the number of stars that are. What we see at night is the merest smattering of the nearest stars. Meanwhile, the Cosmos is rich beyond measure: the total number of stars in the universe is greater than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet earth.”
Even with the naked eye, we can look to Orion to see how these infinite stars are born. Known as M42, the Orion Nebula (nebula is Latin for cloud) lies in Orion’s sword. It is a cloud of dust and gas where stars are just beginning to form; most are only one million years old, give or take. On a clear night with the naked eye, it looks a little fuzzy and glows. Pull up your binoculars and you can see the greenishwhite clouds of the nursery. See the photo on page 70. This nebula is the brightest and closest star forming region to earth. It’s considered a diffuse nebula, which means there are no defined boundaries,
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but inside sit 3,000 stars of varying ages and sizes, not to mention interplanetary discs, brown dwarfs and more. If you’ve read this far, hopefully you’re able to pick Orion out of the night sky by October 21. By then, the Orionid meteor shower will be at its peak with up to 25 meteors every hour. This year there will be a waxing half-moon, which will throw off significant light, but the best place to watch it will be in the middle of elk country between midnight and dawn. Look toward Orion’s right raised elbow. The shower is brought to us every year thanks to Halley’s comet, 74 • BUGLE • NOV/DEC 2016
which last appeared in 1986 (next showing is 2061). We only get to see the comet when it enters our inner solar system, but we are reminded of it thanks to the dust and ice debris it leaves behind twice every year in the Orionid shower and the Eta Aquarid shower in early May.
Sea of Light
There certainly doesn’t need to be a fancy backdrop for a meteor shower, but thankfully for elk hunters, the Milky Way Galaxy, our galaxy, lines
EARTH PHOTO: PHOTO: WIKIMEDIACC / MOON PHOTO: GREGORY H. REVERA-WIKIMEDIACC
The slice of the moon we see reflects its phase and relative position between earth and sun. The large moons pictured here show the actual portion of the moon we see. The smaller moons illustrate the position of our moon relative to the Earth and Sun.
up perfectly with the Orionid shower. Scientifically speaking, a galaxy is simply a cluster of gas, dust, billions of stars and accompanying solar systems complete with planets we can’t see. It’s all held together by gravity. Our Milky Way is a barred spiral galaxy, which as you can see on page 71 is a pretty good description. Scientists can only speculate on the number of stars in our galaxy, which might explain why numbers range from 100 billion to 400 billion. Recent studies suggest the number of planets, or dark matter, far exceeds even those numbers. Depending on the time of year when we view the Milky Way, we are looking toward the middle and a massive black hole (summer) or away from the middle and out into the arms of the spiral (winter). For most of us, the Milky Way gets its name from the Romans, who borrowed it from the Greeks because, well, it looks milky. The Kung Bushmen of the
Kalahari Desert call it the backbone of night and believe it holds up the night sky. The Boorang people of southeast Australia see the clouds that make up the southern Milky Way as smoke from the fires of spirits who inhabited the earth in the previous creation. My favorite description comes from the Chinook Tribe, who call the area around the Columbia River home. They see Orion’s belt as a big canoe, while his sword is a small canoe. They are in a race to see who can be the first to catch a salmon in the big river (Milky Way). The little canoe is winning the race to the salmon, which is the very bright star (Sirius) in the center of the galaxy. If you want to leave the Milky Way and see a major galaxy in its entirety, the next closest is Andromeda. At 2.5 million light years away, it’s big enough and close enough to be seen with the naked eye, appearing as a smudge of light. The distances of space are mind-boggling, especially when you consider that the light we see tonight from Andromeda left
Particles from solar winds collide with atoms in Earth’s atmosphere, releasing photons that light up the sky, creating the aurora borealis (see diagram at right).
I’ve seen them a grand total of one time, 20 years ago near Butte, Montana. The northern lights are a truly unforgettable spectacle, and if you’re out elk hunting when you experience them, then consider your hunt complete. Lasting for 10 minutes or 10 hours, sheets of pale green light appear overhead and begin a dance. Sometimes the colors shift from pink to red to blue. Like most stars, our sun gets its energy from nuclear fusion, converting four hydrogen atoms into one helium atom. Every second, the sun converts five million tons of matter into the energy that turns us red at the beach. Because of the sun’s dynamic nature, gas cells the size of Texas occasionally flare off the surface, spewing light and charged atomic particles into space. When these particles hit the Earth’s magnetic poles and come into contact with our air, the charged atoms dance and glow—hence the reason they are most common at far northern and southern latitudes. To me, the myths surrounding the aurora borealis are nearly as entertaining as the lights themselves. The Chinese saw fire-breathing dragons. In Greenland, the lights were seen as the souls of stillborn babies. In Iceland, expectant mothers were warned not to look at them while delivering as the child might be born cross-eyed. Estonians thought the displays signaled war. Finns saw in them the sweeping tails of Arctic foxes. The Sami people of Scandinavian countries believe the lights emanate from the souls of the dead. If the lights appear and you’re caught outside, don’t dare whistle lest you be whisked away. 76 • BUGLE • NOV/DEC 2016
PHOTO: UNITED STATES AIR FORCE-WIKIMEDIACC
PHOTO: JAKE MOSHER
that galaxy when mammals were just coming onto the evolutionary scene here on earth. One light year equals nearly 6 trillion miles. For perspective, our sun is only 93 million miles away. Light from it takes around eight minutes to reach us. To find the Andromeda galaxy, locate Cassiopeia, the great ‘W’ in the Milky Way, then look just west. For local galaxy fans, there is some rather dismal news. Because the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are barreling toward each other at 78 • BUGLE • NOV/DEC 2016
250,000 mph, scientists predict that in roughly 4 billion years the galaxies will collide. Start making your end of galaxy plans now. Thankfully, between now and the great collision, there is still plenty of time to hunt elk. The next time you find yourself in elk country after dark, far from street lights and cell phones, be sure to take a few minutes and look up. Orion is just one of many constellations with a story to tell. He just happens to love hunting as much as we do.