The Orion Nebula

Updated: Oct 21

One of the brightest nebulae, and it is visible to the naked eye. It is one of the most intensely studied celestial features. This massive star forming region is best visible in January.

The Orion Nebula (also known as Messier 42, M42 or NGC 1976) 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. M42 is located at a distance of 1,344 ± 20 light years. The M42 nebula is estimated to be 24 light years across from one end to the other. It has a mass of about 2,000 times that of the Sun. Older texts frequently refer to the Orion Nebula as the Great Nebula in Orion or the Great Orion Nebula. It is the closest region of massive star formation to Earth.

This image shows the entire Orion Nebula in a composite image of visible light and infrared. It is one of the most detailed astronomical images ever produced. NASA/ESA's Hubble Space Telescope captured it with an unprecedented look. This extensive study took 105 Hubble orbits to complete. All imaging instruments aboard the telescope were used simultaneously to study Orion. The Advanced Camera mosaic covers approximately the apparent angular size of the full moon.

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.

Deeper Parts Of The Orion Nebula


The entirety of the Orion Nebula extends across a 1° region of the sky, and includes neutral clouds of gas and dust, associations of stars, ionized volumes of gas, and reflection nebulae.

The Nebula is part of a much larger nebula that is known as the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. The Orion Molecular Cloud Complex extends throughout the constellation of Orion and includes Barnard's Loop, the Horse-head Nebula, M43,M78, and the Flame Nebula. Stars are forming throughout the entire Cloud Complex, but most of the young stars are concentrated in dense clusters like the one illuminating the Orion Nebula.

(Four Nebulae in a single structure!)

Orion Molecular Cloud Complex

The Orion Molecular Cloud Complex (or, simply, the Orion Complex) is a star forming region with stellar ages ranging up to 12 Myr. Two giant molecular clouds are a part of it, Orion A and Orion B. The stars currently forming within the Complex are located within these clouds. A number of other somewhat older stars no longer associated with the molecular gas are also part of the Complex, most notably the Orion's Belt (Orion OB1b), as well as the dispersed population north of it (Orion OB1a). Near the head of Orion there is also a population of young stars that is centered on Meissa. The Complex is between 1 000 and 1 400 light-years away, and hundreds of light-years across.

The Horsehead Nebula

(also known as Barnard 33) is a small dark nebula in the constellation Orion. The nebula is located just to the south of Alnitak, the easternmost star of Orion's Belt. It appears within the southern region of the dense dust cloud known as Lynds 1630, along the edge of the much larger, active star forming H II region called IC 434. The Horsehead Nebula is approximately 422 parsecs or 1375 light years from Earth. It is one of the most identifiable nebulae because of its resemblance to a horse's head.

Barnard's Loop

Barnard's Loop is an emission nebula in the constellation of Orion. It is part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex which also contains the dark Horsehead and bright Orion nebulae. The loop takes the form of a large arc centered approximately on the Orion Nebula. The stars within the Orion Nebula are believed to be responsible for ionizing the loop.

The loop extends over about 600 arcminutes as seen from Earth, covering much of Orion. It is well seen in long-exposure photographs, although observers under very dark skies may be able to see it with the naked eye.

Recent estimates place it at a distance of either 159 pc (518 light years) or 440 pc (1434 lightyears) giving it dimensions of either about 100 or 300 lightyears across respectively. It is thought to have originated in a supernova explosion about 2 million years ago, which may have also created several known runaway stars, including AE Aurigae, Mu Columbae and 53 Arietis, which are believed to have been part of a multiple star system in which one component exploded as a supernova.

Although this faint nebula was certainly observed by earlier astronomers, it is named after the pioneering astrophotographer E. E. Barnard who photographed it and published a description in 1894.

Flame Nebula

The Flame Nebula, designated as NGC 2024 and Sh2-277, is an emission nebula in the constellation Orion. It is about 900 to 1,500 light-years away.

The bright star Alnitak, the easternmost star in the Belt of Orion, shines energetic ultraviolet light into the Flame and this knocks electrons away from the great clouds of hydrogen gas that reside there. Much of the glow results when the electrons and ionized hydrogen recombine. Additional dark gas and dust lies in front of the bright part of the nebula and this is what causes the dark network that appears in the center of the glowing gas. The Flame Nebula is part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex.

At the center of the Flame Nebula is a cluster of newly formed stars, 86% of which have circumstellar disks. X-ray observations by the Chandra X-ray Observatory show several hundred young stars, out of an estimated population of 800 stars. X-ray and infrared images indicate that the youngest stars are concentrated near the center of the cluster.

The current astronomical model for the nebula consists of an ionized (H II) region, roughly centered on Theta1Orionis C, which lies on the side of an elongated molecular cloud in a cavity formed by the massive young stars. (Theta1 Orionis C emits 3-4 times as much photoionizing light as the next brightest star, Theta2 Orionis A.) The H II region has a temperature ranging up to 10,000 K, but this temperature falls dramatically near the edge of the nebula. The nebulous emission comes primarily from photoionized gas on the back surface of the cavity. The H II region is surrounded by an irregular, concave bay of more neutral, high-density cloud, with clumps of neutral gas lying outside the bay area. This in turn lies on the perimeter of the Orion Molecular Cloud. The gas in the molecular cloud displays a range of velocities and turbulence, particularly around the core region. Relative movements are up to 10 km/s (22,000 mi/h), with local variations of up to 50 km/s and possibly more.

Observers have given names to various features in the Orion Nebula. The dark lane that extends from the north toward the bright region is called the "Fish's Mouth". The illuminated regions to both sides are called the "Wings". Other features include "The Sword", "The Thrust", and "The Sail".

Amateur image of the Orion Nebula taken with a mid-range digital camera.

Now, that it's clear, WHAT it has evolved into, let's get deeper into HOW it has evolved.


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. The tiny force of gravity that could compel the cloud to collapse is counterbalanced by the very faint pressure of the gas in the cloud.

Whether due to collisions with a spiral arm, or through the shock wave emitted from supernovae, the atoms are precipitated into heavier molecules and the result is a molecular cloud. This presages the formation of stars within the cloud, usually thought to be within a period of 10–30 million years, as regions pass the Jeans mass and the destabilized volumes collapse into disks. The disk concentrates at the core to form a star, which may be surrounded by a protoplanetary disk. This is the current stage of evolution of the nebula, with additional stars still forming from the collapsing molecular cloud. The youngest and brightest stars we now see in the Orion Nebula are thought to be less than 300,000 years old, and the brightest may be only 10,000 years in age.

Panoramic image of the center of the nebula, taken by the Hubble Telescope. This view is about 2.5 light years across. The Trapezium is at center left.

The Orion nebula imaged with a 4-inch refractor from Balangir, India.


Observers have long noted a distinctive greenish tint to the nebula, in addition to regions of red and of blue-violet. The red hue is a result of the recombination line radiation at a wavelength of 656.3 nm. The blue-violet coloration is the reflected radiation from the massive O-class stars at the core of the nebula.

The green hue was a puzzle for astronomers in the early part of the 20th century because none of the known spectral lines at that time could explain it. There was some speculation that the lines were caused by a new element, and the name nebulium was coined for this mysterious material. With better understanding of atomic physics, however, it was later determined that the green spectrum was caused by a low-probability electron transition in doubly ionized oxygen, a so-called "forbidden transition". This radiation was all but impossible to reproduce in the laboratory at the time, because it depended on the quiescent and nearly collision-free environment found in the high vacuum of deep space

In 2012, an international team of astronomers suggested this cluster in the Orion Nebula might have a black hole at its heart.

This wide-field view of the Orion Nebula (Messier 42), was taken with the VISTA at the Paranal Observatory.

The crisp image reveals a tapestry of star formation, from the dense pillars of gas and dust that may be the homes of fledgling stars to the hot, young, massive stars that have emerged from their gas-and-dust cocoons and are shaping the nebula with their powerful ultraviolet light.

Stellar wind and effects

Once formed, the stars within the nebula emit a stream of charged particles known as a stellar wind. Massive stars and young stars have much stronger stellar winds than the Sun.[43] The wind forms shock waves or hydrodynamical instabilities when it encounters the gas in the nebula, which then shapes the gas clouds. The shock waves from stellar wind also play a large part in stellar formation by compacting the gas clouds, creating density inhomogeneities that lead to gravitational collapse of the cloud.

View of the ripples (Kelvin–Helmholtz instability) formed by the action of stellar winds on the cloud. There are three different kinds of shocks in the Orion Nebula. Many are featured in Herbig–Haro objects.

Herbig–Haro objects

Herbig–Haro(HH)objects are bright patches of nebulosity associated with newborn stars. They are formed when narrow jets of partially ionised gas ejected by stars collide with nearby clouds of gas and dust at several hundred kilometres per second. Herbig–Haro objects are commonly found in star-forming regions. Most of them lie within about one parsec (3.26 light-years) of the source, although some have been observed several parsecs away. HH objects are transient phenomena that last around a few tens of thousands of years. They can change visibly over timescales of a few years as they move rapidly away from their parent star into the gas clouds of interstellar space (the interstellar medium or ISM). Hubble Space Telescope observations have revealed the complex evolution of HH objects over the period of a few years, as parts of the nebula fade while others brighten as they collide with the clumpy material of the interstellar medium.

There are three different kinds of shocks in the Orion Nebula. Many are featured in Herbig–Haro objects:

  • Bow shocks are stationary and are formed when two particle streams collide with each other. They are present near the hottest stars in the nebula where the stellar wind speed is estimated to be thousands of kilometers per second and in the outer parts of the nebula where the speeds are tens of kilometers per second. Bow shocks can also form at the front end of stellar jets when the jet hits interstellar particles.

  • Jet-driven shocks are formed from jets of material sprouting off newborn T Tauri stars. These narrow streams are traveling at hundreds of kilometers per second, and become shocks when they encounter relatively stationary gases.

  • Warped shocks appear bow-like to an observer. They are produced when a jet-driven shock encounters gas moving in a cross-current.

  • The interaction of the stellar wind with the surrounding cloud also forms "waves" which are believed to be due to the hydrodynamical Kelvin-Helmholtz instability.

The dynamic gas motions in M42 are complex, but are trending out through the opening in the bay and toward the Earth. The large neutral area behind the ionized region is currently contracting under its own gravity.

There are also supersonic "bullets" of gas piercing the hydrogen clouds of the Orion Nebula. Each bullet is ten times the diameter of Pluto's orbit and tipped with iron atoms glowing in the infra-red. They were probably formed one thousand years earlier from an unknown violent event.

The Orion Nebula is one of the largest nebulae and star forming region in the entire universe, discovered till date. One blog is too small a space to talk about something which produces thousands of mysteries passing each day.

So, with this we finally are wrapping up the Nebula Series. The Hubble has been in space for a long time. It needs to be back for a few days.

We will be back in a few days with another exciting expedition into the outer space.

Till then, goodbye.

A PicturePenner Original Series.

Developed by Krantik Das.

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