Orion: Going Deep

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Mar 18, 2015
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One of the most globally recognizable constellations in the sky is, undoubtedly, Orion. Straddling the equator of the sky, it can be seen from literally every point on Earth, and its resemblance to a human standing upright spans cultures. It’s a landmark (skymark?) in the early months of the year, up high at sunset, and a favorite among astronomers.

I’ve looked at it hundreds of times. Thousands. I've used my eyes, I’ve used binoculars, I’ve used a series of telescopes for decades to probe the wonders inside Orion’s boundaries.

And in all that time, with all that experience, I’ve never, ever seen it like this.

That ridiculously beautiful photograph is by Rogelio Bernal Andreo, a master’s master of astrophotography. It’s so complex, so detailed, so deep and crowded that it took me a moment to find the actual stars of Orion in it!

For the record, Orion is on its side here, with orange supergiant Betelgeuse to the lower left, mighty blue supergiant Rigel to the upper right, and the iconic belt in the center, pointing upper left to lower right.

I’m not even sure where to start. I mean, the Orion Nebula, one of the showpieces of the galaxy, is nearly hidden to the right of the belt, lost among the other treasures visible.

Perhaps the most obvious is the sweeping arc of red gas covering most of the picture. This is Barnard’s Loop, a tremendous shell of gas that may have been expelled by a supernova, an exploding star, long ago (I’ve also read it could be gas blown out by young stars being born). The arc is at least 100 light-years across, possibly much larger, and excited into glowing by the hot, young, massive stars in the Orion Nebula.

The large red flowerlike cloud to the left is the Lambda Orionis Nebula, a star-forming cloud centered on the supergiant star Lambda Orionis. The red glow (and in the loop as well) is from hydrogen gas. It’s probably about 130 light-years in size.

There’s also the Flame Nebula just to the left of the lowest star in the belt, the Horsehead to the right, the Witch Head Nebula stretching out almost horizontally above Rigel, and seriously dozens of more objects scattered hither and yon. The detail is stunning, shocking.

Andreo made a similar mosaic that was so spectacular I chose it as my No. 1 astrophoto for 2010. This image is better. It's even deeper (a total of 220 hours of exposures!) and more detailed. It’s a masterpiece.

Perusing Andreo’s site, DeepSkyColors.com, will melt your brain. Every image there is jaw-dropping. You can also follow him on Facebook, where he discusses his astonishing photos. Looking for a gift? The Orion photo is available for printing, too. I bet a lot of folks would be very happy getting something like this as a present. I’ve never seen the like.