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Utah Skies: Orion

The constellation Orion is certainly one of the most recognized objects in the winter sky. In the middle star that forms the sword of Orion, we find the mighty Orion Nebula. Charles Messier included this in his catalog of deep space objects, and it is known as M42.

This large nebula at magnitude 4 is one of the brightest nebulas in the sky and visible to the naked eye. While it may appear as a single star the nebula consists of large clouds of dust and ionized gas. The Orion Nebula is a classic example of a stellar nursery and is the most active star forming region closest to the earth. Hubble telescope observations of the nebula have found over 700 stars at different stages of development.

Deep in the core of the nebula is a small cluster of relatively new stars, 4 of which form what is known as the Trapezium. This small cluster when later observed by the Hubble telescope revealed that 2 of these stars where actually binary stars resulting in 6 stars that form the Trapezium.

The Orion Nebula is one of the most photographed deep sky objects. The intricate array of cloud formations and natural coloring make it an easy object for beginning astrophotographers that will produce spectacular photos. The apparent size of the nebula is 1 degree or about 2 times the size of a full moon as seen from earth. It is approximately 1600 light years away and is estimated to be 24 light years across.

Given the brightness and size of this nebula it is an outstanding target for any size of telescope and for any level of experience.