Shining down on us all winter long, Orion is the brightest and grandest of all the constellations.
The most brilliant of all constellations, the Great Hunter or Celestial Warrior, dominates our wintry evening sky and is visible from every inhabited part of the world. This season, Orion is easily found high in the southern sky at nightfall, and doesn’t fully set until around 1:30 p.m. In March, the Hunter begins moving west. Three bright stars in a diagonal line down the center of a bright rectangle adorn Orion’s belt, pointing north to the bright orange star Aldebaran of Taurus and south to the Dog star Sirius.
In Orion we find two massive stars, Rigel and Betelgeuse, apparently at two completely different times in a star’s existence. In Rigel (the “giant’s left leg”) we find a star that appears to be reaching the prime of its life. Betelgeuse (“The Giant’s Armpit”), on the other hand, shines in a cool, dull shade of red; an irregularly pulsating supergiant star nearing the end of its life, and as such is spasmodically expanding and contracting.
Continue reading: Orion Constellation: Facts, Location and Stars of the Hunter
Attracting cloud of gas and dust
But undoubtedly one of the most wondrous 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 beneath the hunter’s belt between his “legs”.
Easily visible to the unaided eye under dark skies, it can be clearly resolved in good binoculars and small telescopes – even from urban areas – as a bright gray-green nebula enveloping the star.
In larger telescopes it appears as a large, luminous, irregular cloud; There are many details with branches, cracks and rays. A type of aurora is induced in this nebula by fluorescence from the intense ultraviolet radiation from four hot stars called “Trapezium” entangled within it. In 1929, amateur astronomer William T. Olcott wrote, “Words cannot fully describe its beauty.”
The Great Orion Nebula is a huge cloud of extremely thin, glowing gas and dust about 1,600 light-years distant and about 30 light-years across (or more than 20,000 times the diameter of the entire Solar System). Astrophysicists now believe this nebulous stuff is a stellar incubator; the primeval chaos from which star formation is presently underway.
Painting surpasses photography
Anyone who has seen M42 agrees that no photo they have seen has been compared in its magnificence to what appeared in the eyepiece. Its complex, razor-thin structure is indeed a feast for the eyes, but photographs often “burn out” the nebula’s inner region, obscuring the Trapezoidal stars. In 1880, Henry Draper (1837-1882), known as the pioneer of astrophotography, was the first person to photograph a nebula using the M42 as his subject.
In 1875, while at the Harvard Observatory, the French artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot (1827-1895) captured the remarkable detail of the Great Orion Nebula almost perfectly. Interestingly, he didn’t just draw it by “instant moment.” Instead, Trouvelot used a grid of squares in the eyepiece and then meticulously copied the details onto graph paper. In addition, there are many other celestial objects 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 in the late 19th century.
But these beautiful renditions were not the only legacy Trouvelot brought to our shores.
If you want to see the Orion Nebula for yourself, our guides to the best telescopes and binoculars are a good place to start. It doesn’t take much to be able to see many of the space wonders of the night sky!
And if you want to take your own beautiful photos of the night sky, check out our guide to photographing the moon, as well as our best cameras for astrophotography and best lenses for astrophotography.
A spurned legacy
Aside from being an astronomer and artist, Trouvelot was also an amateur entomologist. In 1869 he had the wild idea of making silk cheaper by crossing the silkworm with the gypsy moth.
You may know the latter insect better by its former name, the gypsy moth, but in March 2022, The Entomological Society of America (opens in new tab) officially adopted the new name, spongy moth. This change was necessary because the word “Gypsy” is considered a derogatory term for the Roma people. The moth’s new nickname derives from the common name used in France and French-speaking Canada. “spongy creature”, and refers to the spongy egg masses of the moth.
So Trouvelot imported some live egg clusters to his home in Medford, Massachusetts for experiments. He failed, but some of the creatures escaped and began to multiply alarmingly after a decade; Over the next century, it spread throughout New England, the mid-Atlantic, the Greater Ohio Valley, Piedmont, and the southern Great Lakes to the point where late spring infestations were regularly infesting forests and homes with hairy caterpillars covered, which bare the foliage of the oak trees while they produce their “silks.”
I saw this firsthand a few years ago when my own property was subjected to an invasion of spongy moths and I lost several majestic hardwood trees as a result. Today, this pest is listed as one of the top 100 most destructive invasive species worldwide.
No question. Trouvelot should have stuck to astronomy!
Joe Rao serves as an instructor and visiting professor at New York University Hayden Planetarium (opens in new tab). He writes on astronomy for Journal of Natural History (opens in new tab)The Peasant Almanac (opens in new tab) and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @spacedotcom (opens in new tab) and further Facebook (opens in new tab).