Check out the Great Nebula in Orion

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

In our list of things to look at with your new telescope, one of the best is the Great Nebula in Orion, listed by French astronomer, Charles Messier, as number 42 on his list of things that are not comets.

It is very easy to find and makes a great object for viewing in binoculars or a telescope, but with the scope, you can see so much more in fine detail.

To find the Great Nebula, be outside looking east beginning about 7:00 pm MST for the very familiar figure of our old friend Orion rising over the horizon. Look for the three "stars" that make up the sword hanging from his belt.

The only thing is, these "stars" are not singular stars at all. They are small star clusters in their own right, and the middle one is the object of our quest, the Great Nebula.

Before examining the Nebula, you might want to take a look at the other two star clusters. The top one has some nebulosity of its own and it's worth examining.

The nebula itself is a massive cluster of dust and gas with an active star-forming region, and the newest production is the four-star region called the Trapezium, which you should have no problem seeing.

Orion's Nebula is located about 1,344 light years away. Keep in mind, a light year is a measure of distance, not so much as time. One light year equals about 6 trillion miles. The nebula covers about one degree of sky--the moon covers about one-half degree--and is 24 light years across, so this thing is huge.

To me, this is an absolutely fascinating telescopic object, and is always the first thing I look at when I get a new scope.

There are two other objects in Orion that might be worth a look, if you have the time. They are located near the lowest star in his belt. The first is the famous Horsehead Nebula, and the second is right next to it, called the Flame Nebula. Although you might need a larger scope to take them in.

SKY WATCH: Third-quarter moon Tuesday, December 20th. Venus is still an early evening object in the southwest. It was recently joined by its sister planet, Mercury, now low above the horizon. It may be difficult to locate because it is probably in the glare of sunset. The moon is busy this week. On Friday, December 16th, it is near the Beehive Cluster (M44) in Cancer the Crab at 10:00 pm, and brackets the star Regulus in Leo the Lion on Saturday and Sunday, December 17th and 18th at about 10:30 pm and 11:00 pm respectively MST. Wednesday, December 21st, is the day we've been waiting for; well, some of us anyway. On that day, the sun reaches its southern-most point of the year and the winter solstice occurs (solstice is Latin for "sun stands still"). From then on, the days will begin getting longer and the nights shorter and colder.

NEXT WEEK: A Christmas story for Christmas day and more astronomical blathering.

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