If you’re out in the backyard in the early evenings, face west (where the sun went down) and look up and a little left. The constellation Orion is in rare form.
In the first picture seen here, Orion is in the upper-left corner. You can click the picture to get a much bigger version. Use the “Back” button in your browser to return to this text.
Please note that when you go out in the backyard to look, the moon will be in a different place than shown in this photograph. That’s because the moon moves a little bit farther west every night across the star field, and the star field moves a tiny bit east every night if referenced to your clock. (Or maybe it’s the other way around? I forget. Someone correct me if I’ve got that backwards.)
Regardless, the point is you can’t use the moon in this picture as a reference to finding Orion in your night sky. It will have moved.
Once you’ve found Orion in your sky, there are some interesting things to note. In the second image here, I’ve circled some parts of Orion so I can talk about them and you will know what to look for.
First, the star “Beetle Juice” (Betelgeuse) is inside the top-most circle in this picture. It marks Orion’s right shoulder (which will be to your left, looking at Orion). This is a red giant star and, on a clear night, you can see the reddish tint.
The middle and biggest circle indicates the three bright stars of Orion’s belt. The belt is easily the most recognizable part of Orion and, when I see those three stars, I instantly know I’m looking at Orion. After the Big and Little Dippers, Orion was the third constellation I learned.
The lowest of the three circles represents Orion’s sword, hanging from his belt. Look carefully because, within the sword, you may be able to see what appears to be three stars. One of the three is rather dim so you’ll need a clear night and it also helps if, before looking, you sit and close your eyes for five minutes.
But the middle “star” in the sword is not a star but rather a nebula. A nebula is a collection of stars and gasses. This particular one is called the Orion Nebula.
It also is listed as “Messier 42” or simply M42 in astronomical catalogs. It got that name by being the 42nd object listed in Charles Messier‘s catalog of interesting objects in the sky that was first published in 1774, not long before the rebels in America signed their Declaration of Independence.
If you have binoculars or can get access to even the most modest of telescopes — a spotting scope used at the shooting range will be sufficient — see if you can find that middle star in Orion’s sword. With only a small amount of magnification, you will immediately notice it is not a star.
Instead, it will look more like a smudge.
But that’s not a smudge.
That’s the gas nebula lit up by the light from the stars within and beyond.
It can be quite a thrill to see the Orion Nebula with your own eye for the first time and realize that some of those “stars” out there are actually big groups of stars.
It’s big out there with lots of places to explore.
Someday that will happen.