See a Stellar Nursery!

The next two months are the best time of year to see one of the most beautiful and famous objects in the night sky — the Orion Nebula, a giant cloud of gas and dust where stars are born.  You can even see this nebula without the use of a telescope!

The Orion Nebula
The Orion Nebula. This cloud of dust and gas is illuminated by newly born stars. This is a combination of an infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and a visible image from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Megeath (University of Toledo)

The nebula appears as the ‘middle star’ in Orion’s sword.  If you observe the nebula through a telescope, you should see an image much fainter than the one above: Through amateur telescopes the nebula looks like a beautiful, wispy, grey-green cloud.

Outline of the constellation Orion. The Orion Nebula is located in the sword of Orion.

Orion was a hunter in classical mythology.  The brightest stars of Orion mark his feet, his belt (of three stars), his sword (hanging down from his belt), his shoulders, head, arms and raised club.  Compare the diagram above with the 17th century illustration below.  The Orion Nebula is the middle ‘star’ in Orion’s sword.

A print of the copperplate engraving for Johann Bayer's "Uranometria" (1661) showing the constellation Orion. Orion was a hunter in classical mythology. Image Credit: United States Naval Observatory Library

To give you a sense of just how large and far away the Orion Nebula is … it takes light 24 years to travel from one side of the nebula to the opposite side.  Although Orion is the closest star-formation region to Earth, it takes almost 1,600 years for the light from Orion to reach us.  By contrast, it takes light a little over 8 minutes to travel from the sun to Earth.

Orion is easy to spot at this time of year: Just look south during the evening hours (between sunset and midnight).  You should easily recognize Orion, which will represent a large section of the night sky.  (If you live in the southern hemisphere of Earth, such as in Australia or New Zealand, you’ll find Orion toward the north: The constellation will appear to be ‘upside down’ compared to the diagrams above.)  The Orion Nebula is one of the prettiest and most observed objects in the night sky.  So pull out your telescope over the next few months and enjoy the view!

The planets this month

Jupiter appears toward the southwest after sunset (towards the northwest, if you’re in the southern hemisphere of Earth): It’s a very bright point of light that’s easy to spot.  Right now, Jupiter is located within the Name A Star Live constellation Pisces.

Venus and Saturn will be in the Name A Star Live constellations Libra and Virgo, respectively, in January.  Venus will appear in the eastern sky before sunrise.  Saturn will rise in the east after midnight, and will be toward the south before dawn.  (For those of you in the southern hemisphere, Saturn will be toward the north before dawn.)

Mars is on the other side of the Sun now, so we cannot see the Red Planet this month.

When to go stargazing this month

Moonlight ‘drowns out’ the faint light of many stars and other celestial objects, so the best time  to view the stars is when the Moon is not visible.  If you’re going to stargaze between sunset and midnight, then the best time to do that this month is during the first 8 or 9 days of January, and during the last few days of January.

Finding your star in the night sky

Stars are located within constellations, which are just areas of the night sky. Scorpius, Aries and Taurus are examples of constellations. Your Name A Star Live Star Certificate displays the name of your constellation.

You can use our online World Constellation Guide to determine if you can see your constellation during the evening hours (between sunset and midnight). Of course, you’ll need a telescope to see your star. (That’s why we include the SLOOH online telescope experience in our Deluxe, Framed and Ultimate Gift Sets!) But you can see your constellation without the use of a telescope.

You can also find your constellation by using our Virtual Planetarium™ astronomy software. A planisphere is another useful device.

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