The Wonder and Story of Orion’s Nebula


The Commanding Presence of Orion

Before the days of telescopes, the details of the beautiful nebula had not been discovered but the constellation was well known. Consider its position in the sky: nearly all the world’s population can see the constellation. It’s tell-tale shape among its major stars and the whitish area of the nebula could be seen by the ancients. With the arrival of telescope optics, the nebula’s striking shape began to be studied. The studies have never stopped. Optics get better, space-based instruments target its features, and amateur astronomers repeatedly turn to it. My wife and I did not start observing until I was 50, but among all objects we observe, we observe the Orion constellation and nebula the most. We are not alone.

The sketch above was developed during 2008 with a relatively small telescope but with the added benefit of an astro-video camera that permitted observation of the magnificent colors and shapes of the nebula’s “wings” — those giant outstretched stellar clouds the left and right of the central area in the sketch.

This is getting ahead of the Biblical context for the observation, which I want to summarize:

Genesis 1:14 is the first reference to the creation of the heavens, which includes stars, star groupings, the heavens in general, and every sky object. The origin and creation of the heavens by God is repeatedly referenced in numerous books. One of those scriptures is shown in the sketch. The opening verses of Hebrews are even more explicit: the heavens were created through Jesus Christ. And, the tone of the references is clear: God states the heavens are good; their attributes point to His power and attributes; and they are frequently portrayed in exclamations of His greatness. Of course, this is contrary to the popular belief of naturalism, where everything self-created itself into the complexity we see, including the eventual self development of molecules to men.

With the Biblical framework in Genesis in view, the Orion constellation has an additional Biblical distinction: it is mentioned twice by name in other sections of scripture. It is a reasonable conclusion from these references that the constellation and its many deep sky objects (including the Orion Nebula) hold special significance by their Author. Extractions from these references are included in the three sketches below, which were recently developed by using eyes alone or binoculars. For the majority of the world’s population, the constellation rises in east in the late fall after dark and remains observable until the middle of spring, when it is setting in the west-southwest.

Pencil Sketches: Eyes and Low-power Views



These first two sketches from January 2010 show how both the constellation and the nebula appear with a short observing period that is recorded with pencil and white paper. The central part of the constellation is shown on the left sketch as anyone can observe it with their eyes. On a clear night, its pattern if very recognizable. Betelgeuse is reddish; Rigel is brilliant white; the three stars that comprise the belt are in the center; and two additional stars that are slightly less bright flank the two dominant stars. Even in the spring in the northern hemisphere, the sight is beautiful in the southwest; the ‘belt’ is about level in the early evening.The right sketch is developed from a low power binocular and a mirror that reverses up and down. Even at 8 power, the shape of the nebula can be observed. The ‘wings’ that spread out from the central region (called the Trapezium) can be detected.The third sketch below shows a little more detail with a larger set of binoculars. The gentle curvature of the stellar clouds stretching out from the Trapezium begin to be noticeable.

orion_wings_lindaLinda’s View of the Wings of OrionIn January 2010 we had an opportunity to study the stellar clouds of Orion together. Using an astro-video camera to help capture the color, we took the video signal and ran it to a high resolution monitor inside where it was warm. We were able to sit together and study the colors and shapes on two cloud folds on one side of the nebula. As we also teach teachers and students, the complexity of an object is not apparent until an observer begins to try to sketch the detail. However, the process improves an observer’s ability to see the detail. This was true when we studied the colors and shapes of the “wings” this particular night.It is not a trivial task to mix the pastel colors properly. We “tuned” the video camera to concentrate on the two folds (one is more red/pink, the second is whiter). The Trapezium (central region) becomes too bright when we made the adjustments, so it is shown in white with a boundary and labeled.

Anyone can go on the web and do a search for images with the name “orion nebula” to see hundreds of photographs of this beautiful object. Much more detail can be seen in these photographs than we show, but the value of self observing and sketching is that it forces the discipline of learning the object.



orion_wings_rolandRoland’s View of the Wings of Orion

This sketch shows Roland’s view of the same cloud folds. Observing and sketching is always a personal effort, so even when we observe together, the emphasis in color or detail or the differences in shaping is slightly different. Therein lies the enjoyment of observing together, as we are able to look at each others sketches as they are being developed and discuss detail that we see. An object like this has so much to offer that we could sketch parts of it a dozen times but still find areas where each of us captures unique detail or a different emphasis.

As we teach students in Astronomical Viewing from a Biblical View, observations always include some detail about the instrument used, the date, and comments. A complete observing sheet for a student would also include additional things like observing conditions, location, school/class name, a scripture reference. In overseas locations the instrument is a small refractor and the sketch materials are a piece of paper and a pencil. The results will be like the binocular sketches (above) if the student or teacher develops observing skills.

We are blessed by having access to special equipment to see the colors and more detail, but our observations are no more valuable and noteworthy than, for instance, our Ugandan friends who are new observers. In the end, the opportunity to study such a noteworthy area of the sky that gets attention in the scripture is a privilege that we take seriously. We hope you have enjoyed the series and have seen a little of what can be done through observing God’s created heavens.

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