The Orion Nebula, or M42, is visible from most parts of the world from November to February, which is when the constellation of Orion (pictured) is in the night sky. While most nebulae (clouds of interstellar gas and dust) are difficult or impossible to see with the naked eye, M42 is quite easy to spot in the night sky for much of the year. With a little guidance, you’ll be able to spot the Orion Nebula with your eyes, binoculars, or your telescope.
In the 1970s, astronomers peering into this brightly lit cavern discovered that the Orion Nebula is populated by hundreds of young stars, each less than a million years old. They also uncovered protostars, unborn suns still incubating inside dense clumps of gas. Since then, scores of studies have confirmed that the Orion Nebula is a prolific cradle of star birth.
We have all browsed the internet and seen many pictures of the planets, galaxies, and the other wonders in the night sky. The Hubble Space Telescope has changed our perspective on the universe, and the images it has taken have set our telescope expectations high. But, you should set your expectations differently when using a small telescope. Your small telescope will not provide you with National Geographic ready images, but what you do see will still be remarkable and awe-inspiring.
To first locate this constellation, look for the three stars in a row.
Wait for the right time of year.
Because of the slow orbit of the earth around the sun, the nebula is not visible all year round. The nebula is visible from late autumn to early spring. The constellation Orion, which contains the Orion Nebula, is highest in the sky around midnight in mid-December.
Find the Belt of Orion.
The Belt of Orion is one of the most recognizable asterisms (a group of stars in an identifiable cluster). It is composed of three very bright stars Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka in a line, relatively equidistant from one another. The Belt and the Orion Nebula both lie within the constellation Orion, so knowing where the Belt is will help you know you’re in the neighborhood of the nebula.
Identify the Orion Nebula.
The Orion Nebula is located just to one side of the line between Rigel and Alnilam, the middle star in the Belt of Orion. The nebula is a faint, fuzzy blue patch in the Sword of Orion, an asterism composed of Iota Orionis (just below the Orion Nebula if viewed from the northern hemisphere), the Orion Nebula, and NGC 1981 (an open star cluster visible just below the Orion Nebula if viewed from the northern hemisphere).
As a general rule, the higher the constellation Orion is in the sky, the easier it is to see the Orion Nebula. From Northern Hemisphere locations, Orion is due south and highest in the sky around midnight in middle December. The stars return to the same place in the sky some four minutes earlier each night, or two hours earlier each month. So look for Orion to be highest up around 10 p.m. in mid-January and 8 p.m. in mid-February.
Another time people notice Orion is around the months of August and September, when this constellation appears in the east before dawn.
If you look closely, you’ll notice a curved line of stars “hanging” from the three Belt stars. These stars represent Orion’s Sword. Look for the Orion Nebula about midway down in the Sword of Orion.
Most nebulae clouds of interstellar gas and dust, are difficult if not impossible to see with the unaided eye or even binoculars. But the Orion Nebula is in a class nearly all by itself. It’s visible to the unaided eye on a dark, moonless night. To me, it looks like a star encased in a globe of luminescent fog.