You may not consider winter prime stargazing season, but in fact some of the brightest stars are found shining in Northern Hemisphere skies this time of the year. Probably the most recognizable pattern of stars in all the heavens, after the Big Dipper, is the constellation Orion, the Hunter. Because of its placement in the sky, you can observe Orion from just about anywhere on Earth, and it has spawned legends and myths in many cultures going back thousands of years.
Part of what makes Orion so popular with beginner sky-watchers is that it vividly resembles its mythological character: a mighty hunter armed with a club and shield. With its distinctive row of three equally brilliant stars representing Orion’s belt and four surrounding stars marking the shoulders and knees of the giant, this constellation is easily found about due south around mid-evenings.
Marking Orion’s right shoulder is the striking orange colored Betelgeuse—one of the largest stars known, sitting about 500 light-years away. Even brighter Rigel, marking Orion’s left knee, lies over 700 light-years away and makes for a spectacular contrast with its sparkling blue-white color.
The real cosmic treasure however is within Orion’s Sword—three more stars hanging under the three-star belt of the mythical hunter. Even with the naked eye, you can tell that the middle star in the sword is different from the others, because it looks like a faint hazy patch of light instead of a pinpoint in the night sky.
This special “gleam” in the sword is not a star at all but one of the true marvels of the universe—a colossal star factory over 1,200 light-years away from Earth called the Great Orion Nebula.
Nebula is Latin for “cloud,” and that ghostly greenish glow in the warrior’s sword is indeed a cloud in deep space. Even binoculars or a small telescope will reveal the nebula as a beautiful luminescent cloud in the shape of a blooming flower. Unlike our Earthly clouds made of water vapor, a nebula is made of gas—mostly hydrogen—and dust.
Orion’s great mass (20 light-years wide) of swirling chaotic gas is the birthplace of scores of stars. Thanks to the eagle eyes of the Hubble Space Telescope, we now know that the nebula also holds the promise of forming countless of future planetary systems like our own!
Like a great big celestial neon sign, the Orion Nebula is glowing from the light of embedded hot newborn stars. Looking at this hauntingly beautiful stellar nursery, we are probably witnessing what our own sun’s birthplace looked like over five billion years ago!
Without question it is the most spectacular nebula visible to novice stargazers—clearly evident to the naked eye in dark country sites and easily seen with binoculars from the city.
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.