Orion the Hunter is perhaps the best-known constellation in the sky, well placed in the winter for observers in both the northern and southern hemispheres, and instantly recognisable. Just below Orions belt (three distinctive stars in a row), the hilt of his sword holds a great jewel in the sky, the beautiful Orion Nebula. Bright enough to be seen with the naked eye, the nebula, also known as Messier 42, is a wide complex of gas and dust, illuminated by several massive and hot stars at its core, the famous Trapezium stars.
For astronomers, Orion is surely one of the most important constellations, as it contains one of the nearest and most active stellar nurseries in the Milky Way, the galaxy in which we live. Here tens of thousands of new stars have formed within the past ten million years or so - a very short span of time in astronomical terms. For comparison: our own Sun is now 4,600 million years old and has not yet reached half-age. Reduced to a human time-scale, star formation in Orion would have been going on for just one month as compared to the Suns 40 years.
In fact, located at a distance of 1500 light years, the Orion Nebula plays such an important role in astrophysics that it can be argued that our understanding of star formation is for a large part based on the Orion Nebula.
Richard West | alfa
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