Orion Nebula
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Orion Nebula

Among the many star-forming nebulae that have been identified to date, the Orion Nebula is the closest to Earth, at about 1,345 light-years away. On a dark winter night in areas spared the light pollution of big cities, it can be seen with the naked eye in the middle of the constellation of Orion.

Among the many star-forming nebulae that have been identified to date, the Orion Nebula is the closest to Earth, at about 1,345 light-years away. On a dark winter night in areas spared the light pollution of big cities, it can be seen with the naked eye in the middle of the constellation of Orion. The object of much study, this nebula is a nursery for many developing star systems; in other words, stars that are about to “light up” and that will eventually be encircled by a group of planets, like our Sun. The dimensions of a nebula like Orion are staggering. It has a diameter of about 20 light-years, meaning it would take the fastest human device ever built (the Voyager 1 spacecraft, which is travelling away from the Sun at 17 km/s) 350,000 years to cross it!

The Orion Nebula is an example of what the pre-solar nebula from which our solar system was born might have looked like. This image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows numerous proplyds or protoplanetary discs. These are oceans of gas, dust, and rocks rotating round a newly formed star. This matter will clump together to eventually form rocky and gaseous planets, along with asteroids and comets.

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