Tales of the South Pacific: Mintaka

The outside world sometimes calls Saipan a “South Pacific” island. By contrast, you probably know that Saipan is actually 15 degrees north, not south, of the equator. I’m not picky enough to trifle over such things in general contexts, though, so when I hear that Saipan is in the South Pacific, I just politely nod and smile.

But I do have an observation to share from the actual South Pacific. We’ll consider this topic a page from the adventurer’s notebook. If you’d like to know the sorts of notions that might fill your head if you punt corporate life in the mainland in order to become a pilot in the South Pacific, this will provide one example. Is it esoteric stuff? Possibly. But, hey, why be normal?

For reasons of cosmic alignment, the wintertime constellation of Orion, the hunter, is a very juicy sight from Saipan. Right now it’s in the southwestern sky in early evenings. The window for viewing will be closing as wintertime recedes into the past.

If you’re an adventurer or an outdoorsy type, you might have a solid relationship with Orion. You may know of the giant red star Betelgeuse, which marks one of Orion’s shoulders. You may know of the bright white star Rigel, which marks his foot on the side opposite of Betelgeuse. And you may know that one of Orion’s most prominent features is the three-star line of his belt.

Been there, done that, right? OK. Let’s head south now.

My first exposure to the South Pacific was when I took a job in Pago Pago. I flew a helicopter for a fishing boat. A typical voyage was anywhere from two to four months long. The chopper flying occurred in the daytime. This left nights free for looking at the southern skies from the boat.

I grew up with a solid grasp of the mid-latitude northern skies. The southern sky, however, left me totally befuddled. At a minimum, I wanted to be able to tell from the stars where south was and what my latitude was. This would give my mind some sort of traction in those mysterious skies.

So I started to piece together the southern sky just as thousands of other bored sailors have done over the centuries.

I wound up making a number of voyages in the South Pacific. As the months went by I noticed an old friend sliding into the picture.

It was Orion. Finally, a slice of home!

I wanted to learn to use Orion to maximum advantage and I finally managed to consult some charts.

The first thing I noticed is that one of the stars on his belt, Mintaka, happens to be sitting on the celestial equator. Mintaka is at the end of the belt on the Rigel side of Orion.

To restate this equator gig just to relish its cosmic coolness, Mintaka is 90 degrees from the north celestial pole. And it’s also 90 degrees from the south celestial pole.

Here’s another cool thing: Orion is standing straight up. His head is towards the celestial north and his feet are standing in the celestial south.

If you imagine where his backbone would be, or if you connect the faint star that marks his head (Meissa) with the middle star of his belt (Alnilam), you’ll have a fairly decent celestial north-south line. Alternatively, you can consider that the “sword” that hangs from his belt is pretty much pointing toward celestial south.

The foregoing information is useful for getting a very rough idea of what’s going on up there. The ultimate goal is to estimate where a celestial pole is, and other stars in the appropriate area can hopefully be found to hone the process. So Orion isn’t a magic formula, but is, instead, just one source of information that can be useful in some cases. The rest is up to you.

I will, however, share a concept so folks know what all the fuss is about: Once you reckon a celestial pole, the other stuff (direction and latitude) is easy. If you drop an imaginary plumb-line from, say, the south celestial pole to the horizon, then you’ve found the earth’s true south. If you estimate the angular elevation, in degrees, of the south celestial pole over the horizon, then you’ve estimated your latitude, in degrees, south of the horizon. The same concepts apply to the north celestial pole and its related goodies; just cut-and-paste the term “north” to replace the term “south” for the plumb-line and latitude gigs.

The only difference in practice is that the north celestial pole has a fairly bright star sitting on it (the North Star, also called Polaris), and the south celestial pole doesn’t offer such a feature.

Anyway, that’s one page from an adventurer’s notebook.

Orion has proven to be a reliable ally. He can be your friend, too, and he’s no stranger to Saipan.

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Ed Stephens Jr. | Special to the Saipan Tribune
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.

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