By Plummer H. C. 1875

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Near the heart of the Orion Nebula, two massive binary stars were involved in a head-on collision, exchanging stars. Iota Orionis became a new binary system, but two ‘‘runaways’’ left the scene of the accident at a speed of 200 kilometers per second. Tonight we’ll look at these two challenging stars—one to the north and one to the south. North is AE Aurigae (RA 05 16 18 Dec +34 18 44). Its two-letter designation shows AE is a variable star, and it flirts with unaided visibility between magnitudes 5 and 6.

With moderately dark skies, the eye can perceive a glow below Orion’s belt in the ‘‘sword,’’ but add an optical aid, and the vision of Messier Object 42 (RA 5 35 17 Dec À05 23 28) will blow your mind! Glowing silently 1,600 light-years away, this huge complex of gas, dust, and stars was noted in Ptolemy’s time, but not identified as nebular until about 400 years ago because of its brain-boggling size! Astronomers from Hodierna to Huygens to Halley have been credited with discovering different parts of the whole.

Polaris is a Cepheid variable, a star that expands and contracts on a regular basis, changing its brightness slightly. Modern interferometry has revealed it as slightly irregular—an ‘‘overtone pulsator’’—and a multiple one at that. Polaris’ triple system took the resolving power of the Hubble Space Telescope to reveal its spectroscopic component, but even a small telescope can spot its gravitationally bound blue companion! The Southern Hemisphere also has a near-pole star—Sigma Octanis—but at magnitude 5 (300 times fainter than Polaris), it doesn’t make a good guide star.

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