(This is the first article in a series I plan to post. This, as the title hints, will be photos, facts and tips on finding some of the most amazing deep-sky objects (such as planets, clusters, galaxies and nebulas). A lot of these are quite easy to find and most are better viewed with binoculars or long-exposure photos. I still have issues aiming/finding our telescope and will often use my binoculars and camera instead. So, anyone interested is invited to follow and even post questions. I will respond to the best of my ability.).
Winter is a great time for viewing the night sky. Dark, cold and crisp nights make for darker skies and brings out hundreds of stars that may not normally be visible. Along with that, there are a few amazing deep-sky treats. When I say deep-sky treat, I mean things other than singular stars such as clusters and nebulas (also planets). Here is one of the best:
The Great Orion Nebula (also known on star charts as M42/Messier Object 42 & NGC 1976)
The Orion (Hunter) constellation informed early man that winter was well on it’s way, and does the same for astronomers and night-sky fans today. It is visible late at night during the fall, but rises earlier and earlier in the east as winter approaches. The Great Orion Nebula is one of the easiest and most stunning night sky targets (Messier 42, NGC 1976). It is a naked eye object in most places except for bright cities. For anyone who needs help finding it, I’d first like to suggest downloading Stellarium as an amazingly detailed star/deep-sky finding tool for your laptop/PC. Also, and almost more importantly, if you have a smartphone or iPhone, download the free app Google Sky Map. It is not as detailed as any computer programs, but is invaluable when you’re out in a field at night trying to find anything listed here. It works off of GPS in your phone and I honestly would have quit doing things like this without having that to help me.
Even if you can’t get said programs, Orion is easy to find and recognize. It rises in the East around midnight this time of year. Locate the belt (Orion’s Belt, the 3 stars in a row) and look beneath it at Orion’s sheath/sword. It will appear as three stars in a row, perpendicular to the belt and a bit dimmer. The center of the sword under the best viewing conditions will look like a star or two surrounded by a dim haze. This is best viewed through good binoculars. They are easier to aim and locate objects with and most have enough magnification to turn this fuzzy “star” into a trio of stars (formally known as the Trapezium) and amazingly visible haze surrounding it, shaped similarly to a tropical flower. It will appear white, though long-exposure photos will reveal the white haze as hot pink ionized gas.
It is a heavily active star-forming region with it’s amazing gas clouds illuminated and shaped by strong solar winds of the three main Trapezium stars, as well as other freshly born infant stars. It lies about 1,300 light years away (Meaning when you look at it, you are looking at it’s location and shape as it was 1,300 years ago. Know how the Sun’s light takes around 9 minutes to reach the Earth? Well The Orion Nebula’s light takes 1,300 years.).
Interesting side note: Hubble Telescope images have revealed proto-planetary disks (of ice, gas and dust) around some of the newly formed stars. It is amazing that we have photos that literally show the birth of a fledgling solar system similar to our own. The photo below is a compilation of various examples that they found in a single Hubble photo.
Next article will be about the Andromeda Galaxy and how to find it. It is visible for half of the year, but goes through the zenith (directly overhead) this time of year and is also another favorite of mine.