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Nov 26

Orion Nebula Day

Orion Nebula
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Orion Nebula
Photo courtesy: Rolf Olsen
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“Angel's breath against a frosted sky ..."

~ Stephen James O'Meara, Deep-Sky Companions: The Messier Objects, 2014

One of the most familiar of constellations, Orion, with its belt of three stars (including Betelgeuse and Rigel, two of the brightest stars in the sky), contains the beautiful M42 nebula, a young open star cluster, the Orion Nebula. This stellar nursery is unique in that it is visible to the unaided eye on a dark, moonless night. The first discovery of the diffuse nature of the Orion Nebula is generally credited to French astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, on 26 November 1610 when he made a record of observing it with a refracting telescope purchased by his patron Guillaume du Vair.

“What caused me to undertake the catalog was the nebula I discovered above the southern horn of Taurus on September 12, 1758, while observing the comet of that year. … This nebula had such a resemblance to a comet in its form and brightness that I endeavored to find others, so that astronomers would not confuse these same nebulae with comets just beginning to shine.”

 

~ Charles Messier (1730-1817)

 

 

In the amateur astronomer community, the Orion Nebula (Messier 42) is considered to be one of the most beautiful objects in the night sky, and can be easily observed through binoculars or a small telescope.

The Orion Nebula (also known as Messier 42, M42, or NGC 1976) is a diffuse nebula situated in the Milky Way, being south of Orion's Belt in the constellation of Orion. It is one of the brightest nebulae, and is visible to the naked eye in the night sky. M42 is located at a distance of 1,344 ± 20 light years, and is the closest region of massive star formation to Earth.


The nebula is visible with the naked eye even from areas affected by some light pollution. It is seen as the middle "star" in the sword of Orion, which are the three stars located south of Orion's Belt. The star appears fuzzy to sharp-eyed observers, and the nebulosity is obvious through binoculars or a small telescope.

The first modern discovery of the diffuse nebulous nature of the Orion Nebula is generally credited to French astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, on November 26th, 1610 when he made a record of observing it with a refracting telescope.  And although the nebula was independently discovered by several other prominent astronomers in the following years, it gets its formal name from French astronomer Charles Messier, who first noted it on March 4, 1769, along with three of the stars in Trapezium.

 

Messier published the first edition of his catalog of deep sky objects in 1774 (completed in 1771).   As the Orion Nebula was the 42nd object in his list, it became identified as M42.

 

The colors of this tartan represent those visible.  Purple is the dominant colour of the nebula; green is for the colour emitted by minor components of the nebula; red is for the colour emitted by hydrogen atoms when excited by background radiation; blue is the main colour of M43, an adjacent nebula; yellow is for the stars forming the trapezium in the nebula core.

For the story associated with the constellation of Orion, click the picture.