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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

The Hairy Star, the Hunter, and the Seven Sisters

By Phil Plait

On Jan. 10, 2015, astrophotographer Jerry Lodriguss took what may be my favorite picture of the bright Comet Lovejoy I’ve seen so far. Check this out:

This is a very wide-field shot showing the constellation of Orion on the left, Taurus in the right of center, the Pleiades star cluster on the right, and near the bottom, the lovely green hue of the comet. The comet is still bright and big; through a telescope the fuzzy head (the property that gave comets the nickname "hairy stars") is about the same size as the full Moon, and it’s really easy to spot in binoculars.

I have to comment on Orion in the photo; it shows some features you don’t usually see. At the top, where his head would be (just to the right of ruddy Betelgeuse), you can see a circular reddish glow. That’s the Lambda Orionis nebula, a huge star-forming gas cloud invisible to the eye. The red is the characteristic hue of warm hydrogen, the atoms in the gas excited by the fierce light of the stars born within.

Moving down, that long red C covering the left side of Orion is called Barnard’s Loop, an enormous bubble of gas probably blown out by the tremendous winds of luminous young stars born in the gas clouds dotting Orion.

More or less centered in Barnard's Loop are the famous Orion Nebula, as well as the Flame and Horsehead nebulae. It's quite a busy neighborhood.

Now look down, just to the right of the bright blue star Rigel. See that little blue smudge? That’s one of my favorite nebulae in the sky: the Witch Head Nebula. And yes, it really does look like a witch’s head.

One of my favorite astrophotos of all time features all these objects, taken by Rogelio Bernal Andreo; click that link and scroll all the way down to see it. It’s very much worth your time, I promise!

Anyway, Lovejoy will be sliding past the Pleiades for the next couple of days before moving on to the north. If you have binoculars, do yourself a favor and take a look

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