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Orion's Great Nebula M42

One of the sky's most spectacular sights, Orion's great nebula, M42, is also one of the most interesting.

M42, the Great Orion Nebula, also called Messier 42 is a diffuse nebula that is located in the Milky Way in the constellation Orion. Situated in the sword of the greek mythological hunter, it is so bright it is able to be seen with the naked eye on clear nights. Additionally, it is the closest region of the sky to earth where most stars are born. Scientists have noted that M42 has a mass of approximately 2000 times the mass of the sun.

This is a star that has often been known as the Smoking Star to the American Indians. It was first noted by 18th century astronomer Charles Messier, who at first thought it was nothing but a comet. But after trailing it, he quickly changed his mind and tailed the observation as number 42 in his journal list of the non stellar celestial objects; and even as one of the modern astronomers has dubbed it as the Cosmic Cradle.

Seeking M42

Image via Astronoo

M42 is well known as one of the majestic and interesting objects in the heaven. To the naked eye, the Great Orion Nebula is just a normal star that in the sword of the famous constellation Orion, but when you actually use your binoculars or telescope, then you can get to see that in real sense it is actually a cloud of glowing matter. When looked at through a small telescope, it can be seen as a wispy cloud of gas that is slightly greenish and with four intensely blue-white stars known as the Trapezium at its center. It is very common to amateur astronomers and within its swirling interiors, it holds some of the secrets of stellar conception and birth. M42, the Great Orion Nebula is believed to actually be a huge star in the formation region that is about 1630 light years away from earth.

Orion Nebula, which is also commonly known as the M42 is a stellar nursery where many of the new stars are being born. At around 30 to 40 light years within its diameter, lies its cocoon. This is where the great and bog nebulous womb is giving birth to probably around a thousand stars. In this region, there is what is known as the young open star cluster, where the stars born at the same time form a portion of the nebula and are somewhat still bound loosely by gravity and can actually be seen within the nebula. This is sometimes also known as the Orion Nebula Star Cluster. According to an international team of astronomers in the year 2012, it has been suggested that the cluster in the Orion Nebula might actually be having a black hole at its heart. 

Composition of M42

A nebula, such as the one in Orion, is nothing but a sea of gas made up of atoms and pieces of atoms, integrated with radiation and also magnetic fields. Most of these materials are actually hydrogen, a fact that is not so hard to grasp and the gas that is next in abundance is helium. These two come together to make up the great portion of the nebula matter. Most of the universe is actually made up of hydrogen and next in abundance is helium. Together they make up the greater portion of nebular matter. We still don't know what the dust is composed of.

Ionization occurs in the gas of a nebula close to very massive and hot stars. Through such regions passes a tremendous flux of ultraviolet radiation, each photon of which has enough energy to strip the electron from a hydrogen atom. The free protons and electrons whiz around the nebula, the electrons with a speed equivalent to a temperature of up to 10,000 degrees Kelvin. Each massive star is thus immersed in a sphere of ionized material.

Recently astrophysicists have come to find that nebulae are much more complex and interesting than they once believed. Optically invisible regions have been mapped with radio telescopes, and dark, tiny globules appear in infrared light. Along with hydrogen, helium and traces of a few other elements such as oxygen and nitrogen, the dense regions of nebulae harbor vast clouds of molecules and many of these are familiar on Earth and it is only a few that have never been seen in test tubes our science laboratories. Among the molecules that are found in the nebulae are water, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide and drinking alcohol; and these make up for more than three dozen of the nebula elements. These molecules and the other trace elements may play an important role– even a crucial role—in the formation of stars from the nebular gas.

Scientists Study M42

Image via Discover Magazine

Several astronomers at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science tried to elucidate the first steps of stellar genesis in nebulae. Dr. Frank Shu, of the University of California at Berkeley, thought suggested that what really triggers contraction in a cloud of gas is a wave of compression that sweeps over a region of the galaxy. Such a wave normally forms a spiral, which explains why the brightest stars in some galaxies are aligned in pinwheel patterns. Dr. Peter Bodenheimer a colleague at California's Santa Cruz campus, noted that for nebular matter to become a star, its density must increase by the factor of 10 to the 20th power (1 followed by 20 zeros), its temperature by 10,000 times.

In continuation to understating the life of the Great Orion Nebula M42, it is explained that as the protostar evolves, it becomes observable in various regions of the spectrum. When a piece of the nebula separates from the rest of the gas, it heats up and begins to radiate infrared light— higher in energy than radio waves, but still less energetic than visible light. The central part of this collapsing cloud contracts further and forms the nucleus of a new star. This protostar continues to shrink until temperatures at its center reach several million degrees. Then the fusion of hydrogen begins, and the star enters its adult life. During these last stages of contraction minor eruptions occur at the Star's surface, and some of the leftover material may condense into planets.

What we see in nebulae agrees roughly with what theory tells us should occur, but our calculations are far from complete. There are so many complex processes going on in these cosmic caldrons that it takes many hours on the largest computers to get even sketchy results. Both calculations and observations are bound to improve as computers get better bigger and more telescopes go into space. This two-pronged attack will bring us new knowledge of how nebulae like the One in Orion work. It is really fascinating important to know that around five billion years ago our solar system was part of such a nebula.

No praise can be said is ever too high for the Great Orion Nebula M42 because of its fascinating life and the fact that it is one of the very few heavenly objects that is visible to the unaided eye and also very easy to locate. The M42 and its attendant wonders in the Orion’s sword can be deemed to be celestial landmarks that one will always want to see time after time. 

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