In July I never think about fall. But when August 1st arrives, a new, cooler season seems a real possibility even if the current weather is still steamy. It's also when I think about Orion the Hunter again, winter's signature constellation. The three belt stars all neatly lined up at a slant make one of the night sky's iconic sights.
Orion's Belt and I go back a long way. As a young boy, when I was supposed to be asleep, I'd crane my neck to look out the bedroom window and watch the trio rise over the next door neighbor's roof like birds set free. I'd take a star chart and flashlight with me to bed to identify stars in the northern and eastern sky as they slowly rose to the rafters.
Every late July-early August, the sun finally releases its hold on Orion, and the constellation returns to view low in the southeastern sky during morning twilight. From May through July Orion shares the sky with the sun, which means it's only up in the daytime and naturally invisible. But the Earth is always on the move, traveling around the home star on its 585 million-mile-long orbit. From the perspective of the planets, the sun basically sits still at the center of the solar system. Its apparent motion around the sky is simply a reflection of Earth's circling around it.
The sun travels east about 1° a day against the backdrop of the zodiac constellations. In summer, it moves through Taurus and Gemini, constellations just north of Orion. By the time August rolls around, the sun has ambled far enough to the east for Orion to appear to its right (west) at dawn. Although the constellation is low in the sky and only visible in twilight at the moment, its return is a sign that things are getting on.
Earth's orbital motion causes the stars to rise 4 minutes earlier every day. In early August, you can watch Orion come up 90 to 75 minutes before sunrise in the twilight glow. In a week it will rise almost a half-hour earlier, and by September we'll see it in a dark sky before dawn. When winter arrives, Orion greets our gaze at nightfall. Earth. Always in a hurry.
Just as the acorn grows into a mighty oak, Orion's rising is the embryo of the nascent winter.
"Astro" Bob King is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Read more of his work at duluthnewstribune.com/astrobob.