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Astronomers use Gemini Observatory to study ‘fingers’ of Orion Nebula

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                                This image from the Gemini Observatory atop Maunakea shows so-called bullets, white points, and fingers of the Orion Nebula.


    This image from the Gemini Observatory atop Maunakea shows so-called bullets, white points, and fingers of the Orion Nebula.

The new year welcomes back the first of our four Hawaiian star families, Kekaomakali‘i, the Bailer of Makali‘i.

The star families follow a quarterly cycle: April will bring on Kaiwikuamo‘o, the Backbone; July will feature Manaiakalani, the Heavenly Fishing Line; and October will close out the fourth quarter with Kalupeakawelo, the Kite of Kawelo.

Each occupies a prominent section of the eastern night sky during a particular season of the year.

Kekaomakali‘i, the Bailer of Makali‘i, is the projected image of a celestial canoe bailer made up of a scoop and handle.

Makali‘i is the constellation Pleiades, which in Greek mythology represents the Seven Divine Sisters of Pleione.

We trace the outline of the bailer beginning with the star Capella, Hokulei (Wreath of Stars), in the constellation Auriga, the Goat Herder. Hokulei is a key marker on our star compass as it rises northeast and sets northwest.

Arcing from Capella to the twin stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation Gemini are Nanamua and Nanahope (Looking Forward and Looking Back); we can continue to trace that arc in a southward direction toward Procyon, Puana, in the constellation Canis Minor.

The scoop of the bailer culminates with two of the brightest stars in the night sky that form Bailer’s handle: Sirius and Canopus.

Sirius, A‘a (Burning Brightly), in the constellation Canis Major, is the brightest star in the night sky and the zenith star for Tahiti.

Following the celestial line southward, Bailer terminates with Canopus, Keali‘iokonaikalewa (Chief of the Southern Sky), the second brightest star in the night sky. Taken together, these stars form the Bailer, the scoop in the north and its handle in the south.

Three constellations fill the Bailer as it rises in the east and pours them out toward the western horizon.

Filling the Bailer are Orion and the three distinct stars that form its belt, Mintaka, Alnilam, and Alnitak. Orion, Kaheiheionakeiki (Cat’s Cradle), mimics the image of the string game that children play with both hands outstretched and a string looped around their fingers.

The three stars in the belt of Orion point toward the northeast and the constellation Taurus, the Bull, and the star Kapuahi, Aldebaran, the eye of the bull. Aldebaran is Arabic, meaning the “Follower,” because it follows after the Pleiades farther toward the northeast.

The Pleiades constellation, Makali‘i, was associated with the Makahiki in Hawaii, the traditional four-month season when the worship of the deity Lono was observed, and the Hawaiian community came together to participate in the local harvest, the collection of taxes and athletic competitions.

Throughout the South Pacific other oceanic cultures likewise recognized the season, calling it by its linguistic derivative Matariki, Mataliki, and Matali‘i.

In ancient Greece, the name Pleiades is derived from the word “plein,” to sail; the heliacal rising of this constellation typically marked the start of the navigation season in the Mediterranean sea.

Featured Maunakea observation

One of the most notable shapes in the winter sky is the constellation of Kaheiheionakeiki, also known as Orion the Hunter. This bright shape of seven stars is famous around the world and can be viewed at every latitude on Earth. To astronomers, this area of the sky is also one of the best places to study the birth of stars as well as the early stages of stellar lifetimes.

Beneath the famous Belt of Orion, naked-eye observers can make out a region of gray fuzziness; this gray fuzziness is the famous Orion Nebula.

Today, astronomers utilize the Gemini Observatory on Maunakea to study unique formations in the Orion Nebula known as “fingers.”

The fingers of Orion are filaments of gas that appear immediately next to other unique features called “bullets.”

Current research suggests an explosive interaction between these features, with the bullets being violently ejected and the fingers leftover from the explosion. Astronomers will continue to study this area to gain further insight into the creation of stars.

Evening observations

As Kekaomakali‘i rises in the east, the starline Kalupeakawelo (The Kite of Kawelo) will be setting in the west. Hidden within Kalupeakawelo is the closest galaxy to the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy.

While the Andromeda Galaxy is visible to the naked eye it can often be a bit difficult to observe.

To view it, observers should ensure they have a clear, dark night sky with little to no light pollution. In the northwestern sky, first find the notable constellation of ‘Iwakeli‘i, the royal frigate bird, and look about 15 degrees south of the “elbow” of ‘Iwakeli‘i, where you will find a faint fuzzy blur in the night sky; this is the Andromeda Galaxy.

The Andromeda Galaxy is our closest galactic neighbor and contains about 1 trillion stars, much more than the estimated 200 billion stars within our home Milky Way Galaxy. As the largest galaxies in our local galactic cluster, the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies are caught in each other’s gravities and are set to collide about 4.5 billion years from now.

The planet Mars has always been notable in our sky with its distinctive red color. The reddish color comes from iron oxide, rust, contained in the soil of the planet.

In January the planet will stand out near the zenith of the sky in the early evening. Of all the other planets in our solar system, Mars is the most similar to Earth.

It is often speculated that millions of years ago Mars supported a thriving environment with canals and possibly oceans of liquid water. However, due to Mars’ significantly smaller size, the oceans have disappeared and left Mars as a cold barren desert. Astronomers today can use data from missions to Mars as well as ground-based observatories to study the current geology of Mars and unlock secrets about its history.

Morning observations

Throughout January, the sun will be rising around 7:09 a.m. with dawn coloring the sky starting around 6:45 a.m. The brightest object in the morning will be Venus, rising slightly south of east just before 6 a.m. Venus is the third brightest object in the sky, after the sun and the full moon. Its distinctive brightness has made the planet famous throughout history and it is often referred to as the Morning (or Evening) Star.

January 2021 Sky Chart by Honolulu Star-Advertiser on Scribd

Chad Kalepa Baybayan ( serves as navigator-­in-residence and Emily Peavy ( as planetarium technician support facilitator at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawaii, a center for informal science education at the University of Hawaii at Hilo showcasing astronomy and Hawaiian culture as parallel journeys of human exploration.

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