Beyond M42 – In and around Orion

A guide to the constellation of Orion, beyond M42
A guide to the constellation of Orion, beyond M42, (click to enlarge)

As we spend so much time studying Orion over the Winter, it will do no harm at all to mention a few of the other objects that are visible apart from M42, the Great Orion Nebula. Seeing as M42 is the highlight of Orion, lets start there and turn our binoculars on the Sword of Orion. The whole sword of Orion is rich in Nebulae and clusters. Running from the South up we have NGC 1980 a small cluster and nebulosity, M42 and the trapezium, are above that. M43 is between M42 and The Running man Nebula, NGC1977. Finally, north of NGC1977 we reach NGC1981. Lets start with M43 which is just northeast from the great Orion Nebula, M42, and in reality forms part of the same complex. In the heart of M43 lies a bright star which goes by the name of HD 37061 and is easy to spot at mag 6.75. M43 surrounds this star. Look for the famous fish mouth separating M42 and M43. The fish mouth appears as a dark lane dissecting the bright nebulosity.

M43 is visible in all instruments from 10X50’s upwards but in a larger scope it is much easier to see and particularly striking in the scope is the way the nebulosity seemed to stop suddenly on the eastern side. Moving to the far side of M42, there is a very sparse open cluster which is surrounded by nebulosity NGC1980. The most striking thing about this is the haziness around the bright star Iota Orionis. Again the nebulosity is visible in all instruments from 10X50’s upwards. Also within NGC 1980 is a nice wide double or optical double with contrasting colours. The colours are similar to Albireo and were better seen with the 10X50’s than in any larger instrument.

Moving north from NGC1980 and back up past M42/43 we come to NGC 1977, “The Running Man Nebula” and open cluster Again a hint of nebulosity is seen around the brightest star in binoculars but it is in a telescope that the most detail can be seen. The nebulosity is easily seen under low powers but when the power is pushed up, the dark lanes between the stars are visible. However, despite the fact that it was easy to differentiate between dark and brighter areas, the distinctive running man was not seen. This is a nebula that can well cope with high powers on nights of good seeing. Another nebula worth tracking down is “The Flame Nebula” or NGC 2024. This is found less than a degree to the NE of Zeta Orionis which is the left hand star of the belt of Orion. It lies between Zeta Orionis and a sixth magnitude star (HR1970). This nebula is visible in low powers against a brighter background. I could not see this in the 20X80’s but it was visible in the 8″. At first it was hard to spot but then, once spotted, it was hard to miss. I was not the only observer to notice this , I have seen it happen a couple of times. If you don’t see it at first, recheck your star chart and make sure you are looking in the right area. You will be rewarded. Again the dark against lighter was easily seen, but I seem to remember that this nebula was much more striking when I observed it last year. I guess this is one nebula that is really at its best under excellent conditions. The background nebulosity is quite extensive and is about the size of a full moon.

Before looking at more nebulae, why not check out a nice multiple star system Sigma Orionis. This is located about a degree southwest of Zeta Orionis and is visible to the naked eye. Turn a pair of binoculars on it and you will see that it is made up of a few components. Right alongside Sigma Orionis is another lovely multiple called Struve 761, which itself splits into three stars making up a tight isosceles triangle. Sigma itself split into four components and on the far side of Sigma from Struve761 lies a single star which adds to the view. I am not crazy about double or multiple stars but this one is definitely worth a look.

Now back to nebulae and a double nebula which can be found about two degrees to the north and slightly east of Zeta Orionis. These nebulae are M78 and NGC 2071. Both are easily visible in larger binoculars and are easy in a scope. M78 is more condensed and a pair of stars can be seen in NGC2071. The whole area of Orion is surrounded by nebulosity and here and there brighter patches are easily seen.

If you have had enough of nebulae then Orion also is home to a lot of star clusters. Back to the sword and at the very top of the sword is a small zig zaggy cluster known as NGC 1981, also known as Orion’s crown. This small open cluster is loose and sparse and to be honest does not do much for me. Now, a cluster that is truly spectacular, is the stars which make up Orion’s belt. The three brighter stars are the centre pieces of a wide cluster sprinkled with hot blue/white stars. This cluster fills the field of view in my 20X80’s and is one of my favourite sights. It is a must see and is best seen in binoculars. When you are looking at this cluster, keep an eye out for the arcs and lines of stars that are readily visible in and around the two most westerly of the belt stars.

Another loose open cluster can be found in Orion’s head, around the bright star Lambda Orionis. Again this wont knock your socks off but is worth a look all the same.

From Orion’s body and head we move to his club and look for open clusters NGC2169 and NGC2194. NGC2169 is found on the apex of a triangle pointing SW with XI and Nu Orionis. In binoculars and telescopes it appears to contain a few stars, Leading off to the east of this cluster is a line of stars. When you reach the last star drop down about a degree to find a patch of nebulosity called NGC 2194. This is in fact an open cluster but appears as a hazy patch in binoculars. Why not turn a scope on it and see if the nebulosity resolves into stars.

In the area at the top of Orion’s club can be found NGC 2174/2175. This appears to be a region of extended haze around a faint star. When I was observing this, conditions were rubbish and it definitely deserves a closer look.

Lastly we move to Orion’s shield and find NGC1662 , which is a lovely cluster, it is sparse but pretty, it has a condensed core with an asterism like Corona Borealis, and has some nice colours which are particularly striking in the scope. For me this cluster was a hidden gem and I will definitely be coming back for more.

Despite the fact that this piece was called beyond M42, I am afraid I have to touch on it. On the night of 24th Nov, A few KAC members held an impromptu observing session. The seeing and transparency were good but there was a heck of a breeze which made it all but impossible to do any serious observing. However, towards the end of the night I did for the first time get to see a hint of colour in M42. I thought this was wishful thinking but got Michael Scully to confirm it. We observed a ruddy, pinky, browny colour on what I think was the Northwestern edge of the nebula. Just a pity there was such a horrible wind present. It just goes to show you that you never know what you are going to find in the sky.

I hope you get some time over the next few months to spend with Orion and have a chance to explore more than M42. Also keep an eye out for other deep sky stuff in Orion. There is more to see than I have covered here.