Shining bright in the constellation of Orion the Hunter, the Orion Nebula, with its gorgeous colours and distinctive features, is arguably one of the most beautiful areas of the winter night sky. A masterpiece painting in the museum called Universe!
Winter in the northern hemisphere is definitely the season of Orion the Hunter, the legendary constellation sparkling bright and proud against the dark sky. The three bright stars that form a short, straight row known as the Orion’s Belt are among the most distinctive features in the winter night sky. One that I’m sure, everyone has glanced at.
Just beneath the Belt lays the Orion Nebula, a diffuse nebula that obviously takes the name from its hosting constellation. This is one of the brightest nebulas we know of; so bright that is visible to the naked eye, even from light polluted areas. It is in fact one of the most observed and photographed targets among the astronomy community.
The discovery of the Orion Nebula is generally credited to Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, who first recorder its observation through a refracting telescope in 1610. According to some speculations, however, the nebula was first observed by the Mayans who referred to it as a “cosmic fire of creation”.
In 1880, it became the first ever nebula to be photographed. The American doctor and amateur astronomer Henry Draper, in fact, used the new dry plate photographic process to take a long exposure photograph of the Orion Nebula. For this reason, Draper is considered a pioneer of modern astrophotography.
Later inserted in its catalogue by Charles Messier as object 42, the Orion Nebula is a stellar nursery, a place where new stars are born out of collapsing clouds of interstellar gas and dust. Its central region hosts four massive stars known as The Trapezium: a very young open cluster that illuminates the nebula.
Always escorted by its loyal companion, the Running Man Nebula, the Orion Nebula is the closest star-formation region to our planet, approximately 1,350 light years away from Earth. It extends for roughly 30 light years across and has a mass of around 2,000 that of our Sun. Perhaps for this reason, it is often referred to as the Great Orion Nebula.