By Mike Lynch
At first glance it looks like a fuzzy star to the naked eye, but I can say without a doubt it’s an absolute celestial treasure when seen with a small telescope or even a good pair of binoculars.
The celestial treat I’m talking about is known astronomically as Messier object 42 or M42.
It’s also referred to as the Great Orion Nebula, but whatever you call it, the Orion Nebula is a gargantuan cloud of hydrogen gas that serves as a super massive stellar birthplace. It has a reputation of turning both young and old into the hobby of stargazing.
The other heavenly body that’s equally grabbing is Saturn, with its wonderful ring system. Saturn isn’t available in the evening sky until this spring, but right now is well placed in the early morning pretwilight southern sky.
This week is a wonderful time to take in M42 in the Northwest heavens since there’s no bright moon to wash it out. It will stand out nicely through your telescope in the dark, humidity free, transparent winter sky. It’s really a sight to behold in the dark countryside heavens.
The Orion Nebula naturally lives in the bright constellation Orion the Hunter that dominates the southern evening sky.
Start your search for the great Orion Nebula by looking below those three bright stars in a row that make up the mighty Hunter’s belt. Just to the lower left of Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka, you’ll see a fainter row of three stars lined up diagonally that make up Orion’s sword.
The fuzzy middle star of the sword is the Orion Nebula, more than 1500 light-years away with just one light-year equaling almost 6 trillion miles.
Extend your hand at arm’s length so you can easily cover up the Orion Nebula with the tip of your thumb.
That thumb of yours is covering a giant cloud of hydrogen gas more than 30 light-years in diameter. That’s almost 180 trillion miles.
Now aim your telescope at it to see that cosmic birth cloud. You may see a greenish tinge to it. You’ll also see four stars that are arranged in a lopsided trapezoid.
Those stars and many, many others that you can’t see were all born out of the Orion Nebula.
The four stars that make up what’s called the trapezium are very young hot stars that are probably less than 300,000 years old. It’s debated that one of the stars may be less than 50,000 years old.
Another of the stars is estimated to have a surface temperature of more than 40,000 degrees, more than four times the temperature of our sun.
All that heat and radiation pouring out of these four stars and others in the nebula cause the surrounding hydrogen gas to glow like a giant fluorescent light. Astronomers refer to this kind of nebula as an emission nebula.
The Hubble telescope has detected developing solar systems around some of the stars of the Orion Nebula, but these potential planets may not come into being.
Stellar winds gusting over 5 million miles an hour are constantly blasting away any semblance of developing planet families.
Let your telescope and all the eyepieces you’ll use sit outside a good half-hour so the optics can physically adapt to the colder temperatures.
Also look at the Orion Nebula through your telescope in long stretches. You can really see more detail if you keep your eye on the eyepiece for a good five to ten minutes. It does make a difference.
Mike Lynch is an astronomer and professional broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis and is author of “Stars, a Month by Month Tour of the Constellations.” Check his website, www.lynchandthestars.com.
The Everett Astronomical Society: www.everettastro.org/.