M42: The Orion Nebula
The Orion Nebula is one of the photogenic of astronomical objects. And while it is an excellent target for amateur observers, don't expect to see the kind of color and detail that shows up in enhanced photos. The cloud of gas and dust is relatively bright and easy to find, and its hazy appearance can even be seen with the eyes alone.
The Orion Nebula is located on the middle star of the sword that hangs from Orion's belt. The three-star belt is one of the most notable collections of stars in the sky, and hanging below it is a fainter trio of stars. Focus a pair of binoculars or a telescope on the middle sword star and the nebula should be instantly visible.
The Orion Nebula, also known as M42, is created by a little grouping of stars that almost looks like a tiny letter "C". This cluster of stars is called the Trapezium. Around the star cluster you can see the gray glow of the cloud. A black finger of denser material obstructs the view on one side, seeming to project outward toward the viewer as from a three-dimensional picture. Across the black expanse is another little glow of stars, separately labeled M43.
As a thrilled owner of a new 8-inch telescope that I received from my husband for Christmas, I was eager to get outside and check out just what the difference would be compared to my older telescope. In the one clear night we've had since the telescope was assembled, I aimed it directly for M42 and was not disappointed. The nebula loomed so large in the eyepiece that I couldn't even view it all at once. I managed to bring out my entire family to get a quick peek at the extraterrestrial cloud before the mundane earth-clouds moved in. If the skies ever clear again, the Orion Nebula will definitely make my list of observing targets.
-- Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.