NASA Night Sky Notes: The Orion Nebula – Window Into A Stellar Nursery

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in December, 2019.

By David Prosper

Winter begins in December for observers in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing cold nights and the return of one of the most famous constellations to our early evening skies: Orion the Hunter!

Orion is a striking pattern of stars and is one of the few constellations whose pattern is repeated almost unchanged in the star stories of cultures around the world. Below the three bright stars of Orion’s Belt lies his sword, where you can find the famous Orion Nebula, also known as M42. The nebula is visible to our unaided eyes in even moderately light-polluted skies as a fuzzy “star” in the middle of Orion’s Sword. M42 is about 20 light years across, which helps with its visibility since it’s roughly 1,344 light years away! Baby stars, including the famous “Trapezium” cluster, are found inside the nebula’s whirling gas clouds. These gas clouds also hide “protostars” from view: objects in the process of becoming stars, but that have not yet achieved fusion at their core.

The Orion Nebula is a small window into a vastly larger area of star formation centered around the constellation of Orion itself. NASA’s Great Observatories, space telescopes like Hubble, Spitzer, Compton, and Chandra, studied this area in wavelengths we can’t see with our earthbound eyes, revealing the entire constellation alight with star birth, not just the comparatively tiny area of the nebula. Why then can we only see the nebula? M42 contains hot young stars whose stellar winds blew away their cocoons of gas after their “birth,” the moment when they begin to fuse hydrogen into helium. Those gas clouds, which block visible light, were cleared away just enough to give us a peek inside at these young stars. The rest of the complex remains hidden to human eyes, but not to advanced space-based telescopes.

We put telescopes in orbit to get above the interference of our atmosphere, which absorbs many wavelengths of light. Infrared space telescopes, such as Spitzer and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, detect longer wavelengths of light that allow them to see through the dust clouds in Orion, revealing hidden stars and cloud structures. It’s similar to the infrared goggles firefighters wear to see through smoke from burning buildings and wildfires.

Learn more about how astronomers combine observations made at different wavelengths with the Night Sky Network activity, ‘The Universe in a Different Light,” downloadable from bit.ly/different-light-nsn. You can find more stunning science and images from NASA’s Great Observatories at nasa.gov.

This image from NASA’s Spitzer missions shows Orion in a different light – quite literally! Note the small outline of the Orion Nebula region in the visible light image on the left, versus the massive amount of activity shown in the infrared image of the same region on the right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/IRAS /H. McCallon. From bit.ly/SpitzerOrion

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!

Free Astronomy Magazine – November-December 2019 Issue Available For Reading And Download

Greetings, fellow astrophiles!

The most recent issue of Free Astronomy Magazine (November-December 2019) is available for your reading and downloading pleasure at www.astropublishing.com (click the link to go directly to the issue).

As editor-in-chief Michele Ferrara alludes to early in his “flexible concept” article on page 38, there’s been quite the transition into the study of exoplanets and the potentials for habitability as a way to more credibly have the discussion about alien life. His article on page 22 is worth the read for those who think it’s not a question of “if” but of “how often?”

Free Astronomy Magazine (website, facebook) was featured as the first of a series of articles on great free online content for amateur astronomers (see A Universe Of Free Resources Part 1) and we’ll be keeping track of future publications under the Online Resources category on the CNYO website.

You can find previous Free Astronomy Magazine issues by checking out our Free Astronomy Magazine Category (or look under the Education link in our menu).

For those wanting a quick look at what the issue has to offer, the Table of Contents is reproduced below.


November-December 2019

The web browser-readable version of the issue can be found here:

November-December 2019 – www.astropublishing.com/6FAM2019/

For those who want to jump right to the PDF download (20 MB), Click here:

November-December 2019

NASA Night Sky Notes: The Messenger Crosses The Sun – Mercury Transit 2019

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting by the Night Sky Network in November, 2019.

By David Prosper

Did you know that there are two other objects in our skies that have phases like the Moon? They’re the inner planets, found between Earth and the Sun: Mercury and Venus. You can see their phases if you observe them through a telescope. Like our Moon, you can’t see the planets in their “new” phase, unless they are lined up perfectly between us Earthlings and the Sun. In the case of the Moon, this alignment results in a solar eclipse; in the case of Mercury and Venus, this results in a transit, where the small disc of the planet travels across the face of the Sun. Skywatchers are in for a treat this month, as Mercury transits the Sun the morning of November 11!

You may have seen the transit of Venus in 2012; you may have even watched it through eclipse glasses! However, this time you’ll need a solar telescope to see anything, since eclipse glasses will only reveal the Sun’s blank face. Why is that? Mercury is the smallest planet in our solar system, and closer to the Sun (and further away from Earth) during its transit than Venus was in its 2012 transit. This makes Mercury’s disc too small to see without the extra power of a telescope. Make absolutely certain that you view the transit via a telescope equipped with a safe solar filter or projection setup. Do NOT combine binoculars with your eclipse glasses; this will instantly burn a hole through the glasses – and your eyes! While most people don’t have solar telescopes handy, many astronomy clubs do! Look for clubs hosting Mercury transit observing events near you at bit.ly/findnsn (USA) or at bit.ly/awbtransit (worldwide).

What a fun opportunity to see another planet during the day! This transit is expected to last over five hours. Folks on the East Coast will be able to watch the entre transit, weather permitting, from approximately 7:35 am EST until around approximately 1:04 pm EST. Folks located in the middle of North America to the west coast will see the transit already in progress at sunrise. The transit takes hours, so if your weather is cloudy, don’t despair; there will be plenty of time for skies to clear! You can find timing details and charts via eclipse guru Fred Espenak’s website: bit.ly/mercurytransit2019

Mercury’s orbit is small and swift, and so its position in our skies quickly changes; that’s why it was named after the fleet-footed messenger god of Roman mythology. In fact, if you have a clear view of the eastern horizon, you’ll be able to catch Mercury again this month! Look for it before dawn during the last week of November, just above the eastern horizon and below red Mars. Wake up early the morning of November 24th to see Mars, the Moon, and Mercury form a loose triangle right before sunrise.

Discover more about Mercury and the rest of our solar system at nasa.gov

Photo of the May 9, 2016 transit of Mercury. Mercury is the small dot on the center right. Note how tiny it is, even compared to the small sunspot on the center left. Credit: Dave Huntz
This photo from the same 2016 transit event shows Mercury a bit larger, as it should; it was taken at a higher magnification through a large 16 inch telescope! Credit: J. A. Blackwell

The Night Sky Network program supports astronomy clubs across the USA dedicated to astronomy outreach. Visit nightsky.jpl.nasa.gov to find local clubs, events, and more!