Jimmy Westlake: Orion's great nebula

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Jimmy Westlake

Jimmy Westlake's Celestial News column appears Tuesdays in the Steamboat Today.

Find more columns by Westlake here.

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Jimmy Westlake/Courtesy

The middle "star" in Orion's Sword is actually an enormous complex of gas, dust and stars known as M42 or the Great Orion Nebula. Our own sun probably formed from a similar nebula nearly 5-billion years ago.

— When the eighteenth century French astronomer and comet-hunter Charles Messier aimed his telescope at the middle star in the Sword of Orion, he thought he might have discovered a new comet. The object certainly had the fuzzy, diffused appearance of a comet. To Messier's dismay, however, the object turned out not to be a comet. He had, instead, made an independent discovery of what is now known as the Great Orion Nebula. It became the 42nd entry in Messier's now famous catalog of comet look-alikes and is, therefore, known as Messier 42, or just M42, for short.

M42 has since become one of the most photographed and carefully studied deep sky objects in the heavens. It is the closest and best example of an ionized cloud of hydrogen gas in space called a diffuse nebula. The word "nebula" comes from the Latin word for "cloud." Any small telescope, or even ordinary binoculars, will reveal the fuzzy appearance of M42. It resembles a cluster of streetlights seen through a thick fog. The source of the light illuminating the nebula is a quartet of four very hot, luminous stars collectively called the Trapezium. A small telescope at medium power should split the four stars of the Trapezium.

NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and Spitzer Space Telescope have helped unravel the mysteries of this colorful cloud of gas. The Great Orion Nebula is a stellar nursery where hundreds, even thousands of new stars and planetary systems are condensing from the interstellar gas. A few million years hence, a swarm of new stars will exist where we now see the nebula.

Recent measurements have nailed down the distance of M42 to be 1,350 light years. The visible portion of the nebula measures about 24 light years across and is only a very small portion of a much larger dark cloud known as the Orion GMC, or, giant molecular cloud. Wherever bright stars illuminate the dark corners of the Orion GMC, we see a diffuse nebula, such as M42. Other bright regions of the cloud show up as our Horsehead Nebula, the Flame Nebula, Messier 43, Messier 78 and an enormous structure called Barnard's Loop.

No optical aid is required to spot the Great Orion Nebula, though binoculars will enhance the view. Look just south of the three familiar stars that form Orion's Belt, at the middle star of the fainter trio that forms the Hunter's sword. Don't expect to see the vibrant reds and blues shown in long-exposure photographs of M42. At night, the human eye's color receptors are not activated, so even the colorful Orion Nebula appears a pale green.

Professor Jimmy Westlake teaches astronomy and physics at Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus. He is an avid astronomer whose photographs and articles have been published on the Web sites of CNN.com, NASA's "Astronomy Picture of the Day" Web site, Spaceweather.com, Space.com, Discover.com, MSNBC.com, NationalGeographic.com, and in Sky & Telescope, Astronomy, Night Sky, Discover, and WeatherWise magazines. His "Celestial News" article appears weekly in the Steamboat Pilot & Today.

His "Cosmic Moment" radio spots can be heard on local radio station KFMU. Also, check out his Web site at www.jwestlake.com.

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