A Flame in the Sky – the Orion Nebula

By Kat Troche

It’s that time of year again: winter! Here in the Northern Hemisphere, the cold, crisp sky offers spectacular views of various objects, the most famous of all being Orion the Hunter.

Credit: Stellarium Web

As we’ve previously mentioned, Orion is a great way to test your sky darkness. With your naked eye, you can easily spot this hourglass-shaped constellation. Known as an epic hunter in Greco-Roman, Orion and all its parts have had many names and meanings across many cultures. In Egyptian mythology, this constellation represented the god Sah. The Babylonians referred to it as The Heavenly Shepard. In most cultures, it is Orion’s Belt that has many stories: Shen in Chinese folklore, or Tayamnicankhu in Lakota storytelling. But the Maya of Mesoamerica believed that part of Orion contained The Cosmic Hearth – the fire of creation.

1,500 light years away from Earth sits the star-forming region and crown jewel of Orion – Messier 42 (M42), the Orion Nebula. Part of the “sword” of Orion, this cloud of dust and gas sits below the first star in Orion’s Belt, Alnitak, and can easily be spotted with the naked eye under moderate dark skies. You may also use binoculars or a telescope to resolve even more details, like the Trapezium: four stars in the shape of a baseball diamond. These young stars make up the core of this magnificent object.

Of course, it’s not just for looking at! M42 is easily one of the most photographed nebulae around, by astrophotographers here on the ground, large ground-based observatories, and space telescopes alike. It has long been a place of interest for the Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra X-ray Space Telescopes, with James Webb Space Telescope joining the list in February 2023. Earlier this year, NASA and the European Space Agency released a new photo of the Orion Nebula taken from JWST’s NIRCam (Near-Infrared Camera), allowing scientists to image this early star forming region in both short and long wavelengths.

ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, M. Zamani (ESA/Webb), PDRs4ALL ERS Team

But stars aren’t the only items photographed here. In June 2023, JWST’s NIRCam and MIRI (mid-infrared instrument) imaged a developing star system with a planetary disk forming around it. That’s right – a solar system happening in real time – located within the edges of a section called the Orion Bar. Scientists have named this planet-forming disk d203-506, and you can learn more about the chemistry found here. By capturing these objects in multiple wavelengths of light, we now have even greater insight into what other objects may be hiding within these hazy hydrogen regions of our night sky.

In addition to our Dark Sky Wheel, a fun presentation you can share with your astronomy club would be our Universe Discovery Guide: Orion Nebula, Nursery of Newborn Stars activity. This will allow you to explain to audiences how infrared astronomy, like JWST, helps to reveal the secrets of nebulae. Or, you can use public projects like the NASA-funded MicroObservatory to capture M42 and other objects.

Learn more about what to spy in the winter sky with our upcoming mid-month article on the Night Sky Network page through NASA’s website

This article is distributed by NASA’s Night Sky Network (NSN).

The NSN program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!