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Orion Nebula

Recently, I was looking at images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Several of the images were of the Orion Nebula. I couldn’t help but think of that quote: “To reach out and touch the hand of God.”

The Orion Nebula is the closest and most active area of star formation in the Milky Way. It is often compared to a stellar nursery or maternity ward. The dimensions of this thing are mind-boggling -- it is around 1,300 light years away and about 30-40 light years across. In terms of actual miles, a light year represents 6 trillion miles.

The Orion Nebula is the brightest diffuse nebula in the sky. It can be seen with the naked eye in the constellation Orion. Orion (“The Great Hunter”) is one of the easiest constellations to identify in the winter sky. On a clear night, look up in the southern sky (roughly half-way up, and perhaps a bit to the east depending on the time of night) and you’ll see four bright stars forming a crude rectangle orientated somewhat vertically. Within the rectangle, near the middle, are three prominent stars arrayed in a row dipping to the left (“Orion’s belt”). A couple stars are visible in a hazy area a bit below the middle of Orion’s belt (“his sword”). That hazy area is the Orion Nebula.

Orion, of course, was a prominent feature in early mythology of many cultures. A couple of myths about Orion have his death associated with a scorpion. For his eternal safety, the gods placed him in the heavens well away from the scorpion (Scorpius). He can be seen up there with his two dogs (Canus major and Canus minor) fighting Taurus the bull, and hunting Lepus the hare.

There are some great images of the Orion Nebula on the internet, and NASA's Hubble site is a good one for these and other images of space.

So, look up at Orion the next chance you get. And while you are at it, take a good long look at the Orion Nebula and ponder this: The light you see from the Orion Nebula has been traveling through interstellar space for some 1,300 years before finally landing in your eye!

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of "Natural North Dakota"and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005, Chuck has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for the Lake Metigoshe Mirror, and his “The Naturalist” columns appear in several other weekly North Dakota newspapers.
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