Back to: Weekend Sky Report
January 17, 2020
Stars form in huge clouds of gas and dust that some astronomers call “Stellar Nurseries.” The gas accretes or collects together, and as that body gains mass, its own gravity then causes it to collapse in on itself. Once there’s enough matter there, nuclear fusion begins, and a star is born. And much of what we know about star formation, we learned by studying the nearby Orion Nebula.
The Orion Nebula is just over 1300 light years from our solar system, and it’s believed to be an enormous 24 light years across. Because it’s so big, and... relatively close, it’s easily visible with binoculars or a telescope, even under fairly bright, suburban skies.
You can find it high to the southeast around 9 o’clock all this weekend. Just look for the three stars that make up Orion’s Belt, and look below it for what looks like a smaller collection of stars. In the middle… is the Orion Nebula.
Now, to you, it’ll just look like a fuzzy cloud around a few stars. But most photos you’ll find of the Orion Nebula are full of brilliant colors and detail. That’s the result of long exposures, or specialized equipment observing wavelengths we can’t actually see. But because astronomers are able to use those tools, we’ve learned so much about how stars are formed.