Orion shines down on us all winter, and is the brightest and most beautiful of all the constellations.
The great hunter or celestial warrior dominates our winter evening sky, the most brilliant of the constellations and is visible from every inhabited part of the earth. This season, Orion can easily be found standing high in the southern sky in the evening and doesn’t fully set until around 1:30am. Throughout March, the hunter will begin to move west. Three bright stars in a diagonal line in the center of a bright rectangle decorate Orion’s Belt pointing north to the bright orange star Aldebaran of Taurus, and south to the Dog Star Sirius.
Within Orion we find two huge stars, Rigel and Betelgeuse, apparently in two completely different periods of a star’s existence. In Rigel (“the giant’s left leg”) we find a star that is apparently reaching the peak of its life. Betelgeuse (“The Armpit of the Giant”) in contrast, shines with a cool, dull red hue; an irregularly pulsating supergiant star nearing the end of its life and as such expanding and contracting spasmodically.
Read more: Orion Constellation: Facts, Location and Stars for the Hunter
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 below the Hunter’s belt between its ‘legs’.
Clearly 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 light grey-green nebula enveloping the star.
In larger telescopes it appears as a large glowing irregular cloud; there is considerable detail with branches, tears and rays. A kind of auroral glow is induced in this nebula by fluorescence from the strong ultraviolet radiation of four hot stars called “Trapezium”, entangled in it. In 1929, amateur astronomer William T. Olcott wrote: “Words utterly fail to describe its beauty.”
The Great Orion Nebula is an enormous cloud of extremely thin glowing gas and dust, about 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 thing is a stellar incubator; the primordial chaos from which star formation is currently underway.
Painting surpasses photography
Everyone who has looked at the M42 agrees that no photograph they have seen compares in splendor to what appeared in the eyepiece. Its complex, gossamer-like structure is truly an eye, but photographs often “burn out” the inner part of the nebula, obscuring the Trapezium stars. In 1880, using M42 as a subject, Henry Draper (1837-1882), known as a pioneer in astrophotography, was the first person to photograph a nebula.
In 1875, during his stay at the Harvard Observatory, the 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 just draw it by “missing”. 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 celestial objects that 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 renderings were not the only legacy that Trouvelot brought to our shores.
If you want to check out the Orion Nebula for yourself, our guides to 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 wonders of the night sky in deep space!
And if you want to take your own gorgeous pictures 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 despised 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 may know the latter insect better by its former name, the gypsy moth, but in March 2022, The Entomological Society of America (opens in a new tab) formally adopted the new name, spongy moth. This change was necessary because the word ‘Gypsies’ is considered a derogatory term for the Romani people. The mill’s new moniker is derived from the common name used in France and French-speaking Canada, “spongy,” 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 spread alarmingly; over the next century, spreading throughout New England, the Mid-Atlantic, the Greater Ohio Valley, the Piedmont, and the southern Great Lakes, to the point where late-spring infestations regularly cover forests and homes with hairy caterpillars that reveal oak leaves as they produces its “silk.”
I saw this firsthand several years ago when my own property underwent 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 (opens in a new tab). He writes about astronomy for Natural history magazine (opens in a new tab)it The farmer’s almanac (opens in a new tab) and other publications. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) and on Facebook (opens in a new tab).