Orion, the hunter, is winter's most spectacular constellation. It's high in the south in late evening, with a rectangle of bright stars enclosing its diagonal belt.
South of Orion, just skimming the southern horizon, is a fainter constellation that has a connection to Orion.
Columba, the dove, is sometimes depicted as the dove that Noah released after the flood. But it's also seen as the dove that led the Argonauts through the strait at the mouth of the Black Sea.
The two brightest stars in Columba are Alpha and Beta Columbae. They're a bit fainter than most of the stars of the Big Dipper. Alpha Columbae is a blue star that's about 260 light-years from Earth. Orange Beta Columbae is only about a third as far.
The most famous star in Columba, however, is a still-fainter member of the constellation: Mu Columbae, a massive star that's racing away from Orion. It's 1300 light-years away. Mu Columbae probably was thrown out of the Orion Nebula, a cloud of gas and dust that has thousands of newborn stars.
According to one scenario, Mu Columbae and another massive star orbited each other as a binary in Orion. But the system encountered another binary. One star in that system stole Mu Columbae's partner, ejecting its own partner to the north, where it's racing through the constellation Auriga. The encounter sent Mu Columbae hurtling to the south, where it now sails through space alone -- on the wings of the dove.
Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2009
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