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Australia issues final Southern Sky coin

The third and final coin in the Royal Australian Mint’s award winning Southern Sky series was released on Aug. 4. It features one of the brightest and most recognizable of the constellations of the night sky: Orion The Hunter.

As with previous issues in this series each colorized $5 proof is struck on a dome-shaped, 39.62 mm, 1 ounce .999 fine silver flan. The design is by Aaron Baggio. Mintage is 10,000.

A cupped or dome-shaped coin from the Australian Mint will feature the constellation of Orion. The coin is a silver $5 proof. In Australia, Orion appears to be standing on his head.

A cupped or dome-shaped coin from the Australian Mint will feature the constellation of Orion. The coin is a silver $5 proof. In Australia, Orion appears to be standing on his head.

The constellation of Orion is not confined to the Southern Sky, as were Pavo and Crux, the two constellations celebrated in previous coins of this series. The location of Orion on the celestial equator means it can be seen throughout much of the world. However, it is drifting south. If readers wish to hang around until the year 14000 they will find the constellation is no longer visible from throughout much of the northern latitudes.

Its prominence in the night sky has seen it play a part of many cultures. These range from the prehistoric, through Babylonian, ancient Egyptian, Greco-Roman, North and South American, African, Middle Eastern, Asian, Pacific and Australian Aboriginal. It is mentioned in the Bible and Homer. References to it are widespread in European folklore.

Our western names of the constellations are derived primarily from Greek and Rome. Both cultures have differing accounts of how Orion ended up in the night sky. One version describes him as the demi-god son of the sea-god Poseidon and the gorgon Euryale. As a young man he visited the island of Chios, got drunk and attempted some casual coupling with the unwilling daughter of the local ruler. She screamed, he was seized, blinded and driven from the island. A concerned friend led him to the uttermost east to be healed by the Sun.

However, Orion had learned nothing. He took off on a hunting trip with the goddess Artemis and her mother Leto, and bragged loud and long he would kill every beast on Earth. Gaia, Mother Earth, overheard and was deeply shocked. She sent the Scorpion to kill him. When the deed was done the goddess relented sufficiently to ask Zeus to place Orion among the constellations. The top god did so, adding the Scorpion to the heavens as well.

And there Orion rides today, accompanied by his faithful dogs Canis Minor and Canis Major, in eternal pursuit of Taurus the bull.

All of the main stars in the constellation are young, bright blue giants or supergiants, bar one. That exception is Betelgeuse, a red giant. It is one of the largest stars known and the only one sufficiently large and near enough to be imaged as a disk in the Hubble Space Telescope.

Those with good color vision should be able to pick out the color differences with no hassle given that Betelgeuse is the second brightest star in Orion. The brightest star is Rigel, a blue supergiant that is also the sixth brightest star in the night sky. Compared with our 4.5 billion-year-old sun Rigel is only 10 million years old.

And that bright object in the middle of Orion’s dagger is not a star but the Orion Nebula. It may be one of those galaxies far, far away but it is the closest region to Earth of major star formation.

The Constellation of Orion as seen in the Northern Hemisphere night sky. The size of the different stars represents how bright each is compared with the others. Orion is holding his bow in his left hand, or some would claim a dead animal or, perhaps, a shield. In his right he brandishes his massive club. Betelgeuse marks his right shoulder and Rigel his left knee. Image by IAU and Sky & Telescope Magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg), Wikipedia Commons.

The Constellation of Orion as seen in the Northern Hemisphere night sky. The size of the different stars represents how bright each is compared with the others. Orion is holding his bow in his left hand, or some would claim a dead animal or, perhaps, a shield. In his right he brandishes his massive club. Betelgeuse marks his right shoulder and Rigel his left knee. Image by IAU and Sky & Telescope Magazine (Roger Sinnott & Rick Fienberg), Wikipedia Commons.

Of course, Down Under The Hunter appears to be standing on his head as shown on the RAM’s coin. As a consequence Orion’s belt and dagger are commonly known as the Pot.
It is a great pity that we are not going to see more of these striking RAM coins. There are a number of constellations distinctive to the Southern Sky, any of which would make a great topic.

The coin is available from the Royal Australian Mint online shop: www.ramint.gov.au, or e-mail info@ramint.gov.au.

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