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Utah Skies: the Horsehead Nebula

Dell Vance

The popular Orion constellation is rising about midnight this month. It is relatively easy to find as it is made up of very bright stars. The three bright stars in a line, Mintaka on the west, Alnilam in the middle and Alnitak on the East, form the belt of Orion. Alnitak is right next to a bright nebula, NGC 2024 or Flame Nebula. Sliding down slightly to the Southwest of the Flame Nebula is another bright nebula, NGC 2023. A little to the right of NGC 2023 is the famous Horsehead Nebula.

The Horsehead Nebula is a dark nebula made up of gas and dust. The nebulous region behind the Horsehead Nebula is very red and provides great contrast for the Horsehead Nebula. Using binoculars or telescopes you can easily find the Flame Nebula and NGC 2023. The Horsehead Nebula is often difficult to find visually even with a telescope. Imaging the area provides a convenient way to see the Horsehead Nebula.

When I was about 12 years old, I had a small 3-inch reflector telescope and my dad’s camera. Dad’s camera had a shutter that could be held open for longer exposures. I got the bright idea to hold the camera up to the eyepiece and take a photo. It was a black and white photo that I developed myself. It had an image of a nebula that I thought was the Horsehead Nebula. I was very excited to show my fuzzy image of the nebula to my friends. Years later I found out that it was an image of the Orion Nebula which is farther south and east of the Horsehead Nebula in the sword area of the Orion Constellation. 

I have since imaged the Horsehead Nebula many times. Using a focal reducer to get a wider field of view, I can get all three nebulas in a single image.

The Horsehead Nebula was originally discovered in 1888 by Williamina Fleming, a Scottish Astronomer working at the Harvard College Observatory. She was using a method of astrophotography developed by the director of the Harvard College Observatory. For several years she was not given credit for the discovery. In 1908 her discoveries were credited to her and her female colleagues at the Harvard College Observatory.