Wonder at the colorful Orion nebula in the southwestern sky throughout March

Wonder at the colorful Orion nebula in the southwestern sky throughout March



© Manfred_Konrad/Getty Images

Shining down upon us all winter long, Orion is the brightest and grandest of all the constellations. 

Dominating our winter evening skies is the Great Hunter or Celestial Warrior the most brilliant of the constellations and visible from every inhabited part of the Earth. This season, Orion can readily be found standing high in the southern sky at nightfall and doesn’t completely set until around 1:30 a.m. Throughout March, the Hunter will begin to move westward. Three bright stars in a diagonal line in the middle of a bright rectangle decorate Orion’s belt which points northward to the bright orange star Aldebaran of Taurus, and southward to the Dog Star, Sirius.

Within Orion we find two immense stars, Rigel and Betelgeuse, apparently at two entirely different periods in a star’s existence. In Rigel (the “Left Leg of the Giant”), we find a star apparently reaching the prime of its life. Betelgeuse (“The Armpit of the Giant”) in contrast, shines with a cool, dull ruddy hue; an irregular pulsating supergiant star, nearing the end of its life and as such it expands and contracts spasmodically. 

Read more: Orion Constellation: Facts, location and stars of the hunter

Explore the Orion Nebula via multiple space-based observatories



Alluring cloud of gas and dust

But undoubtedly one of the most wonderfully beautiful objects in the night sky is the Great Orion Nebula, also known as M42. It appears to surround the middle star of the three stars that lie below the Hunter’s belt between its ‘legs.’ 

Plainly visible to the naked eye under a dark sky, it can be clearly resolved in good binoculars and small telescopes — even from urban areas — as a bright gray-green mist enveloping the star. 

In larger telescopes it appears as a great glowing irregular cloud; there is considerable detail with branches, rifts and rays. A sort of auroral glow is induced in this nebula by fluorescence from the strong ultraviolet radiation of four hot stars called the “Trapezium,” entangled within it. In 1929, amateur astronomer, William T. Olcott wrote: “Words fail utterly to describe its beauty.” 

The Great Orion Nebula is a vast cloud of extremely tenuous glowing gas and dust, approximately 1,600 light-years away and about 30 light-years across (or more than 20,000 times the diameter of the entire solar system). Astrophysicists now believe that this nebulous stuff is a stellar incubator; the primeval chaos from which star formation is presently underway.

Painting outdoes photograph

Everyone who has viewed M42 agrees that no photograph they had seen compared in splendor to what appeared in the eyepiece. Its complex, gossamer-like structure is indeed an eyeful, but photographs often “burn-out” the inner region of the nebula and obscure the Trapezium stars. In 1880, using M42 as his subject, Henry Draper (1837-1882), known as a pioneer of astrophotography, was the first person to successfully photograph a nebula. 

In 1875, during his stay at Harvard Observatory, French artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot (1827-1895) captured almost to perfection, the remarkable detail of the Great Orion Nebula. Interestingly, he didn’t draw it merely by “eyeballing.” Instead, Trouvelot used a grid of squares in the eyepiece and then meticulously copied the details onto squared paper. In addition, there are many other sky objects which he depicted such as solar eclipses, comets and the Milky Way, which made him known worldwide as one of the finest artists of celestial objects during the late 19th century.

But these beautiful renditions were not the only legacy that Trouvelot brought to our shores. 

If you want to check out the Orion nebula for yourself, our guides for the best telescopes and best binoculars are a great place to start. It doesn’t take much to be able to see many of the deep space wonders of the night sky!

And if you’re looking to snap your own gorgeous photos of the night sky, check out our guide on how to photograph the moon, as well as our best cameras for astrophotography and best lenses for astrophotography.

A scorned legacy

Besides being an astronomer and artist, Trouvelot was also an amateur entomologist. In 1869 he had a wild idea to produce silk more cheaply by crossing the silkworm with the spongy moth. 

You might know the latter insect better by its former name, the gypsy moth, but in March 2022, The Entomological Society of America formally adopted the new name, spongy moth. This change was necessary because the word ‘gypsy’ is considered a derogatory term for the Romani people. The moth’s new moniker, is derived from the common name used in France and French-speaking Canada, “spongieuse,” and refers to the moth’s sponge-like egg masses.

So Trouvelot imported some live egg clusters to his home in Medford, Massachusetts for experimentation. He failed, but some of the creatures escaped and after a decade began to proliferate alarmingly; over the next century, spreading throughout New England, the Mid-Atlantic, Greater Ohio Valley, Piedmont and southern Great Lakes, to the point where late-spring infestations periodically cover forests and houses with hairy caterpillars that denude oak tree foliage as they produce their “silk.” 

I saw this firsthand several years ago when my own property endured an invasion of spongy moths and as a consequence, I lost several majestic hardwood trees. Today this pest is listed as one of the 100 most destructive invasive species worldwide.

No question about it. Trouvelot should have stuck to astronomy! 

Joe Rao serves as an instructor and guest lecturer at New York’s Hayden Planetarium. He writes about astronomy for Natural History magazine, the Farmers’ Almanac and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.