The Nebulae of the Hunter and One “Sirius-ly” Bright Star

Horsehead Nebula (Barnard 33)
Horsehead Nebula (Barnard 33) and NGC-2023

There are many fascinating and awesome sights to behold when viewing the heavens. In autumn, there are two prime targets to spot some of these objects. The constellation of Orion has 4 nebulae we’ll take a look at, all approximately 1,600 light years away, and all part of the Orion molecular cloud complex, a large formation of star-forming nebulae. The hunting dog, Canis Major, also contains several objects of interest as well. Together, these constellations provide a good opportunity for those with binoculars and telescopes to find some neat stuff!

Orion Nebula
Orion Nebula

First up is the Orion Nebula. As the name implies, it can be found in Orion, below the middle star of the belt, in the middle star in the vertical row of three stars. With binoculars, it’s easy to tell that this is no ordinary star as it looks quite fuzzy. A telescope with 40x magnification or more will reveal the extent of this huge nebula, which will fill the lens! It appears a grayish-blue to the eye, but long-exposure photography reveals a multitude of color. With a large telescope, such as a 6 or 8 inch, you can even make out dust lanes within the nebula. The gasses and dust are being illuminated by young stars that are forming, or that have just formed. A great target to view with a telescope!

Messier 78 Reflection Nebula
Messier 78 Reflection Nebula

Next is the much dimmer reflection nebula, M78. It is called a reflection nebula because the gas and dust forming the nebula reflects the light coming from 2 different stars. This nebula requires a 6-inch telescope or larger to see since it’s quite dim. It appears comet-like, but two distinctive fuzzy objects can be seen. It is located off to the left of Orion’s belt. See if you can spot this dim gem!

NGC-1999 Reflection Nebula
NGC-1999 Reflection Nebula

Continuing with our tour of Orion’s nebulae, we’ll look at NGC-1999. Located just below the Orion Nebula, NGC-1999 is another dim reflection nebula illuminated by a nearby star. This nebula also requires a larger telescope. It’s small and faint, but under dark skies and good viewing conditions, the dark void in the center can be seen, and makes spotting this nebula unmistakable!

Horsehead Nebula with the star Altinak to the left
Horsehead Nebula with the star Alnitak to the upper left and reflection nebula NGC-2023 below and left

Our last nebula is the Horsehead Nebula, also known as Barnard 33. This is a diffuse nebula, which is made up of ionized hydrogen gas. It is located just beside the left-most star in Orion’s belt (named Alnitak). Once again, this dim nebula will require a 6-8 inch telescope to spot. As the name suggests, there is a horse-head shaped feature. This is one of the more unique and stunning nebulae to spot and is relatively easy to find if you have the right equipment. As a bonus, see if you can spot another reflection nebula, NGC-2023 to the bottom left!

Canis Major, the Hunting Dog
Canis Major, the Hunting Dog

The next constellation we’ll look at is Canis Major, Orion’s hunting dog, which contains 3 impressive objects worth spotting with a telescope. Canis Major is below and to the left of Orion, but is fairly easy to spot thanks to the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius.

Sirius_A_and_B_Hubble_photo
Sirius A and Sirius B, the small star to the bottom left

Sirius is a very bright, bluish star that makes up the eye of the dog. It’s nearly twice as bright as the next brightest star visible from Earth, Canopus, which lies in the Southern Hemisphere. Sirius is just under 9 light years away, and is comprised of two stars. The second star, Sirius B, is a dim, small white dwarf that requires a telescope to see. While looking at Sirius, try to spot Sirius B through the glare of the brighter Sirius A!

NGC-2362
NGC-2362

There are a pair of open star clusters located in Canis Major as well. First is NGC-2362. Located to the left of the top star in the triangle-shaped structure that forms the legs of the dog, this open cluster is fairly bright. It’s approximately 5,000 light years away, and makes an easy viewing target because it’s reasonably bright.

Messier 41
Messier 41

Wrapping up our tour is the M41 open cluster. Located directly below Sirius, it’s another easy cluster to spot thanks to it’s brightness. M41 is around 2,300 light years away, and the cluster is about the same size as the full Moon. This also makes for an easy find while searching! Both M41 and NGC-2362 are easily spotted with binoculars as well, so a huge telescope isn’t required to enjoy these open clusters, though you will see much more detail with higher magnification.

There are plenty of beautiful and amazing objects to see in the night sky! Star-forming nebulae and open star clusters are no exception. Thanks to the brightness of Orion and Canis Major, these wonders are quite easy to find. So, when you’re out looking up at the late fall/early winter sky and want to see the beauty of the heavens, aim your telescopes and binoculars towards Orion and Canis Major. You’ll be treated to a great view of some really wonderous objects!

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