How to find Messier 42, the Great Orion Nebula

Feb 4

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2/4/2013 8:45 AM  RssIcon

Orion with stars labelledOrion is a prominent constellation from the northern hemisphere, with it's distinctive 'belt' stars line up in a row, surrounded by four more first and second magnitude stars.  And one of the best objects to see in the entire night sky is contained within it: M42, the Great Orion Nebula.  This week, look directly south around 8:00pm or so (see chart below), and you should be able to see the seven bright stars that compose this constellation, even from most light polluted areas.  It is ideally placed, because at that time, it is on the meridian, an imaginary line stretching from north to south.  That means the constellation is at it's highest point above the horizon, increasing our ability to see more in it, by not having to peer through nearly as much of our own atmosphere.

The constellation may appear larger than you expect; star charts make it seem small because the dots used to represent it's stars are large, but in the sky they look farther apart.  The stars Betelgeuse and Rigel - it's two brightest at upper left and lower right, respectively - are nearly 20 degrees apart.  (Learn how to easily measure distance in the sky, here.)

Between these two brightest stars are the belt stars, Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, less than three degrees apart.  These are hot, young, bright stars, around 800 to 900 light years away, and shine at thousands of times the luminosity of our Sun.  Below these stars are three more stars that are about a degree apart in total distance.  These are referred to as the "Sword Stars" of Orion, as they appear to form a scabbard from Orion's belt.  This is where we want to concentrate our efforts to find the Great Orion Nebula.  They are dimmer than the other seven stars, but are found by looking dead-center between Alnitak, Rigel and Saiph - use optical aid if necessary.

Aiming binoculars or a finderscope at this area, you should be able to see that the center "star" appears to have a "haze" around it.  That is the Orion Nebula!  With a very small telescope at higher magnification (100x or so), that single center "star" splits into four components.  These are known as the Trapezium, as they form a trapezoidal shape.  There are actually 6 stars that can be split here, but larger telescopes with good optics and very steady skies are required to split the "E" and "F" components.  Even without those ideal conditions, many people report seeing color in this nebula, especially with larger apertures.  However, it helps to NOT be dark-adapted to see them - and also to be younger!  Our eyes, as they age, lose some of that ability to see color in low-light conditions.

In smaller instruments, blue, or even blue-green may be spotted, along with the gull-wing shape of grey gas that is glowing from the stars embedded within this new-star-forming factory.  It resides around 1,500 light years from earth, so it appears to us now as it actually looked around 500 AD.  The Hubble Space Telescope has detected furious star formation here, and in several thousand years, this entire nebula will no longer be visible but will have formed into one of the best open clusters in that part of the sky.  

Want to know more about this object?  See this Eyes on the Sky, Jan 7 thru Jan 13 video.

Find M42 in Orion

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The Nightlight

This blog includes what to see in the night and daytime skies, thoughts on telescopes, binoculars, and other astronomy observing accessories and equipment, plus my own occasional notes on objects I've seen and observed. Oh, and the random theater or other "my take on life" post. In other words, there is always something interesting. Check it out.