Saturday, January 22, 2011

Orion's End?

Prince wrote that Orion’s Arms were “wide enough to hold the both of us”. The ancient Egyptians linked the constellation with their god Horus (not Osiris) and the Mayans saw Orion’s Belt and its Nebula below as the “Fire of the Sky”, where a New Fire was lit at the beginning of the Fifth World – the one to end on December 21, 2012.

Imagine my surprise, therefore, to find that right now, Betelgeuse, one of the brightest stars in the sky but also a principal definer of the constellation of Orion might stage-manage and star in the greatest show in the sky!

For some time now, Betelgeuse has been losing mass, indicative of a collapse. It could go super-nova at any time, though no-one has been able to put a definitive timeline on it. It could be a few years, or a few hundreds of thousands of years. But when Betelgeuse does go supernova, for a few days or even weeks, it will light up the sky to such an extent that it would be very visible, as luminous at least as the moon – the nights would not be like anything we know right now.

There is tremendous speculation about 2012 and the catastrophes that should occur at the end of the Mayan calendar. Nothing in the Mayan cosmology, however, speaks for the physical destruction of the world, though there are references to days being thrown off, somehow, by a cataclysm. Most quickly interpreted as an earthly cataclysm, Betelgeuse’s explosion – or a similar event in the sky – would have an identical effect. Indeed, such stellar displays would be far more prominent on the ancient Mayans mind when describing a catastrophe.

The Mayan ceremonies to do with the endings of these cycles of time also involve the Nine Lords of the Underworld killing the Thirteen Sky Lords. In Egyptian mythology, this balance of order and chaos was specifically linked with Horus – Orion! But now we learn – whether slowly or quickly – that the hero – a word derived from the name Horus – is dying, but will surely be born again, for that too is part of every creation myth!

The Orion Nebula is a huge complex of gas and dust where massive stars are forming; a stellar nursery – a perfect description for a “hearth”, as described in the Mayan cosmology! Though the Nebula and Betelgeuse are only visibly linked – in reality they are hundreds of light years apart – isn’t it a wonderful coincidence one of the greatest stellar nurseries exists visually near one of the most famous dying stars – and hence constellations?

Betelgeuse is the shoulder of the constellation Orion. When it disappears, will we compose myths that relate how Orion was wounded in the shoulder, or lost an arm in battle, no doubt in efforts to conquer chaos? Will it, in short, become the material of myths, just like similar events in the sky became part of ancient myths?

The latest scientific findings on the Nebula were taken by Igor Chekalin, who participated in the Hidden Treasures 2010 astrophotography competition, with this entry. Though the Nebula is visible with the naked eye, when seen through powerful telescopes, the innate beauty of the universe and this stellar nursery is simply overpowering.