Chances are, you’ve seen images of this nebula countless times online, on TV, in movies and in books and magazines – but what is it? And how can you see it for yourself?
If you’re north of the equator, look toward the south at around midnight in December, 10PM in January or 8PM in February. Alternatively, if you’re in the southern hemisphere, look toward the north at those times.
This Voiij by community member Richard J. Bartlett is another helpful guide to understanding our universe and the night sky. Experience the full Voiij on the app here and see below for a list of Richard’s other sky-gazing Voiijs.
Let’s start with the basics. Nebulae are huge clouds of gas and dust in space and are frequently light-years in diameter. These clouds are where the stars themselves are born. As the nebula moves through space, they interact with stars. A nearby star will have a gravitational impact on the nebula, drawing the gas and dust toward it as it passes by.
As the particles of gas and dust move, they collide with one another and clump together. Over time, these clumps grow larger and begin to exert a gravitational influence, pulling more and more material in and becoming gravitationally stronger as it grows. Eventually, pressure at the core causes the material there to ignite, and a star is literally born. The whole process can take millions of years, but this is just a blink of an eye in the lifespan of the universe!
The majority of nebulae are relatively faint and can be tricky to observe, but there are a few that are visible to the naked eye. Two notable examples are the Great Orion Nebula (more on that in a moment) and the Lagoon Nebula (see below) which is best seen from the southern hemisphere. These nebulae appear as tiny, misty, cloud-like patches, which is why astronomers in pre-telescopic times called them nebulae – the word is derived from the ancient Greek word for cloud.
The Great Orion Nebula is very easy to locate; you only really need to know when to look for Orion itself. Orion, the Hunter, is a constellation that’s best seen during the winter in the northern hemisphere, or during the summer in the southern hemisphere. If you’re north of the equator, look toward the south at around midnight in December, 10PM in January or 8PM in February. Alternatively, if you’re in the southern hemisphere, look toward the north at those times.
A distinctive feature of Orion are the three bright stars that make up his belt. Look just below those stars (or above, if you’re in the southern hemisphere) and you’ll see a faint misty patch with a tiny star at its center. (Look carefully and you should even be able to see it from suburban skies, but it might be lost to the sky glow of light pollution if you’re closer to the center of town.) Remember, you’re looking at a cloud of gas and dust that’s an estimated 35 light-years in diameter and roughly 1,400 light-years away!) This tiny star is actually a small group of stars, called the Trapezium. These are young stars, born from the nebula itself and still swaddled within the layers of gas and dust of the nebula that gave birth to them.
You’ll get a clearer view through binoculars, with 10x50s showing two or three of the Trapezium stars. However, through a telescope the view can be stunning. Even at a low power of around 30x, its shape can clearly be seen, with dark bands and texture being apparent at higher magnifications. You’ll also see additional Trapezium stars, with at least four being visible through small scopes.
As for the color… if you’re expecting to see the beautiful rose pinks, reds and purples you see in the photographs, you’ll be disappointed. That’s because cameras are much more sensitive to light than the human eye and can detect more color. These photographs also require long exposures and, frequently, additional processing to bring out the details. Instead, the nebula typically has a pearly hue, while some parts of the cloud will have a greenish tint, similar to the image here. Regardless of whether you look with just your eyes, binoculars or a telescope, the Great Orion Nebula is a favorite with astronomers around the world, and well worth seeking out.
More Voiijs from Richard:
Cover image credit: Ivan Bok via Wikimedia
Sky simulations: SkySafari by Simulation Curriculum Corp
(for all image credits see the Voiij on the app)