The Orion Nebula, the closest region of massive star formation to Earth


The Orion Nebula is a diffuse nebula situated in the Milky Way, being south of Orion’s Belt in the constellation of Orion. It is one of the brightest nebulae, and is visible to the naked eye in the night sky.


What is the Orion Nebula?

The Orion Nebula (also known as Messier 42, M42, or NGC 1976) is located at a distance of 1,344 ± 20 light years and is the closest region of massive star formation to Earth. The M42 nebula is estimated to be 24 light years across. It has a mass of about 2000 times the mass of the Sun. Older texts frequently refer to the Orion Nebula as the Great Nebula in Orion or the Great Orion Nebula.

It is one of the most scrutinized and photographed objects in the night sky, and is among the most intensely studied celestial features. The nebula has revealed much about the process of how stars and planetary systems are formed from collapsing clouds of gas and dust. Astronomers have directly observed protoplanetary disks, brown dwarfs, intense and turbulent motions of the gas, and the photo-ionizing effects of massive nearby stars in the nebula.

Interstellar clouds like the Orion Nebula are found throughout galaxies such as the Milky Way. They begin as gravitationally bound blobs of cold, neutral hydrogen, intermixed with traces of other elements. The cloud can contain hundreds of thousands of solar masses and extend for hundreds of light years.

Star formation

The Orion Nebula is an example of a stellar nursery where new stars are being born. Observations of the nebula have revealed approximately 700 stars in various stages of formation within the nebula.

Recent observations with the Hubble Space Telescope have yielded the major discovery of protoplanetary disks within the Orion Nebula, which have been dubbed proplyds. HST has revealed more than 150 of these within the nebula, and they are considered to be systems in the earliest stages of solar system formation. The sheer numbers of them have been used as evidence that the formation of star systems is fairly common in our universe.

Stars form when clumps of hydrogen and other gases in an H II region contract under their own gravity. As the gas collapses, the central clump grows stronger and the gas heats to extreme temperatures by converting gravitational potential energy to thermal energy. If the temperature gets high enough, nuclear fusion will ignite and form a protostar. The protostar is ‘born’ when it begins to emit enough radiative energy to balance out its gravity and halt gravitational collapse.

Image: Rawastrodata
Text: Wikipedia contributors. “Orion Nebula.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 18 Jul. 2017. Web. 7 Aug. 2017

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