Clusters Nebulae Galaxies

The Orion Nebula is a starry nursery

Orion Nebula in the shape of a cave made of pink and purple gasses with bright light at center.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Rudy Kokich in Virginia took this composite image of the Orion Nebula in January 2021. Rudy wrote: “The Orion Nebula is one of the most familiar celestial objects, easily visible to the unaided eye below the 3 stars of Orion’s Belt. It’s a large cloud of dust and gas, about 25 light-years in extent, partially illuminated by emission and reflection components.” Thank you, Rudy!

Orion the Hunter is the most noticeable of all constellations. The three stars of Orion’s Belt jump out at you as a short, straight row of medium-bright stars, midway between Orion’s two brightest stars, Betelgeuse and Rigel. Once you find the Belt stars, you can also locate the Orion Nebula, otherwise known as M42. When you look at it, you’re gazing toward a stellar nursery, a place where new stars are born.

How to locate the Orion Nebula

If you want to find this famous nebula, first you have to locate the constellation Orion. Fortunately, that’s easy, if you’re looking at the right time of year. The Northern Hemisphere winter months (Southern Hemisphere summer months) are the perfect time to come to know Orion.

First, look for the three medium-bright stars in a short, straight row. These stars represent Orion’s Belt.

Next, if you look closely, you’ll notice a curved line of stars “hanging” from the three Belt stars. These stars represent Orion’s Sword. Look for the Orion Nebula about midway down in the Sword of Orion.

As a general rule, the higher the constellation Orion is in the sky, the easier it is to see the Orion Nebula. From Northern Hemisphere locations, Orion is due south and highest in the sky around midnight in the middle of December. The stars return to the same place in the sky some four minutes earlier each night, or two hours earlier each month. So look for Orion to be highest up around 10 p.m. in mid-January and 8 p.m. in mid-February.

Another time people notice Orion is around the months of August and September, when this constellation appears in the east before dawn.

Star chart of constellation Orion with stars labeled.
Orion the Hunter – visible to both hemispheres – rises in the east on December evenings. Chart via Chelynne Campion/ EarthSky.

A globe of luminescent fog

Most nebulae – clouds of interstellar gas and dust – are difficult if not impossible to see with the unaided eye or even binoculars. But the Orion Nebula is in a class nearly all by itself. It’s visible to the unaided eye on a dark, moonless night. To me, it looks like a star encased in a globe of luminescent fog. The star-gazing aficionado Stephen James O’Meara described it as:

… angel’s breath against a frosted sky.

In a dark-sky location, observe the Orion Nebula for yourself to see what it looks like. A backyard telescope, or even binoculars, will do wonders to showcase one of the greatest celestial treasures in the winter sky.

Orion constellation over a desert landscape and SUV with people looking up.
View at EarthSky Community Photos. | Parisa Bajelan took this photo on November 17, 2017, from Iran and shared it with EarthSky. Parisa wrote: “Lut Desert is one of the hottest and darkest areas on earth. Lut Desert National Park has many wonders, spectacular wildlife, geo-tourism attractions, well-designed eco-resorts, a marvelous starry sky and adventure recreation activities as well.” Thank you, Parisa! Can you see the expanded glow around one of the Sword stars? That’s M42, the Orion Nebula.

Science and the Orion Nebula

According to modern astronomers, the Orion Nebula is an enormous cloud of gas and dust, one of many in our Milky Way galaxy. It lies roughly 1,300 light-years from Earth.

At some 30 to 40 light-years in diameter, this great nebulous cocoon is giving birth to perhaps a thousand stars. A young open star cluster, whose stars were born together in the gas cloud and are still loosely bound by gravity, appears within the nebula. Some people refer to it as the Orion Nebula Star Cluster. In 2012, an international team of astronomers suggested this cluster in the Orion Nebula might have a black hole at its heart.

Through small telescopes you can see the four brightest stars in the Orion Nebula, known as the Trapezium. The light of the young, hot Trapezium stars illuminate the Orion Nebula. These stars are only a million or so years old, babies on the scale of star lifetimes.

But most of the stars in this emerging cluster are veiled behind the Orion Nebula itself, the great stellar nursery in Orion’s Sword.

The Orion Nebula’s position is Right Ascension: 5h 35m; Declination: 5 degrees 23′ south.

Bottom line: The Orion Nebula appears to the eye as a tiny, hazy spot. But it’s a vast stellar nursery, a place where new stars are forming.

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December 16, 2022
Clusters Nebulae Galaxies

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Bruce McClure

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