Using Mintaka to Find East and West

Mintaka is the lead star in Orion's belt.

Orion, the hunter, is that huge wintertime constellation that many of us can identify with ease. Visible from October through March, he rises in the east face up, and sets in the west face down.

Perhaps Orion's most distinctive feature is his belt--a prominent grouping of three stars that form a straight line. As mentioned, that belt's lead star (the star that goes across the sky first) is Mintaka.

The Second Most Useful Star

Next only to Polaris, Mintaka is, in my experience at least, the second-most useful star for navigation.

What makes it so useful is that it rises due east and sets due west--no matter where you are on earth.

It's highly likely, however, that because of trees, mountains, haze, or clouds blocking the view, you won't see this star rise or set. But you can still use this star to find east or west.

Up to about three hours after it has risen, simply trace the star in your mind's eye back to the horizon at an angle of 60 degrees minus your latitude to find east. Conversely, up to about three hours before it sets, trace it forward to the horizon at the same angle to find west.

Why not just find directions from Polaris, the North Star? Because clouds or trees may block your view of the northern sky.

Making sense of the Night Sky

You can use the mythology surrounding Orion to remember the order of the stars in this portion of the night sky.

According to the myth, Orion had a thing for Atlas's seven daughters--known as the Pleiades.

As the story goes, Atlas's daughters didn't care much for Orion's attentions. To protect his female offspring, Atlas placed Taurus, the Bull in the sky between Orion and the Pleiades.

Taurus has a distinctive V-shaped face, and a large menacing eye formed the the red giant star known as Aldeberan.

Following Orion are his two hunting dogs--Sirius (the brightest star in the sky, and Procyon.

By remembering this story, it might be easier to remember the order in which these constellations appear. And that might make it easier to find Mintaka, from which you can determine good directions.


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