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Cosmic Birth and Chaos!


There are sure-fire objects in the Butler night sky that will get anyone turned on to the hobby of stargazing, like the moon, Saturn, and Jupiter.

One of the best is the great Orion Nebula, an immense stellar birthing factory. I guarantee you’ll say WOW when you see it through a telescope for the first time, even if you’re using a small telescope or a pair of binoculars. You can even see the nebula with your naked eyes as a “fuzzy star.”

To find the Orion Nebula, look for the bright constellation Orion the Hunter in the early evening, hanging in the south-southwestern sky as darkness sets in. You can’t miss it. Orion is one of those few constellations that looks like what it’s supposed to be.

Start your search for the great Orion Nebula by looking below those three bright stars in a row that make up the mighty Hunter’s belt. Just to the lower left of Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, you’ll see another fainter row of three stars that make up Orion’s sword.

The Orion Nebula is that fuzzy middle star in the sword. It’s nearly 1,400 light-years away, with just one light-year equaling almost six trillion miles!

Hold one of your thumbs at arm’s length pointed toward the Orion Nebula. Your thumbnail should easily cover up this giant cloud of hydrogen gas, over 25 light-years in diameter. That’s nearly 180 trillion miles across or about 20,000 times the diameter of our solar system.

Unfortunately, our eyes, even through a telescope, are not sensitive enough to see the color and detail that celestial photographs display, but you’ll still like what you see through your telescope, even if it’s a smaller scope.

You may see that the nebula has a greenish tinge to it. You’ll also notice four stars arranged in a lopsided trapezoid. If your telescope is large, and the sky is really clear and dark, you may see a fifth star.

Those stars, and many others you can’t see, were all born out of the Orion Nebula. That colossal cloud of hydrogen gas could produce many more stars in the future, maybe even another 10,000 stars the size of our sun.

The four stars that make up the Trapezium are very young, hot stars that are, on average, about 300,000 years old. One of the stars is estimated to have a surface temperature of 72,000 degrees, more than seven times the temperature of our sun.

All that heat and radiation pouring out of these four stars and others cause the surrounding hydrogen gas to glow like a giant neon light. Astronomers refer to this kind of nebula as an emission nebula.

The Hubble telescope, a little better than most backyard telescopes, has even detected developing solar systems around some of the stars in the Orion Nebula.

Still, these potential planets may not come into being. Stellar winds gusting at more than two million miles an hour are constantly blasting away any semblance of developing planet families. In some instances, tremendous stellar wind currents from several stars can collide to cause a perfect cosmic storm, otherwise known as complete celestial chaos. Your thumbnail covers all of that!

Celestial Happening this week: The bright planets Jupiter and Venus continue to approach each other in the very early evening southwest sky, and Venus is the brighter of the two. They’ll reach their closest approach to each other on March 1. This coming Wednesday evening, the new crescent moon will be placed just to the left of the planet pair.

Mike Lynch is an amateur astronomer and retired broadcast meteorologist for WCCO Radio in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He is the author of "Stars: A Month by Month Tour of the Constellations," published by Adventure Publications and available at bookstores and him at

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