How to spot the Orion nebula © Getty Images

How to spot the Orion nebula

The Orion nebula is a staggering 1,344 light-years away – and completely visible to the naked eye. If you know where to look, that is.

Nebulae are clouds of dust and gas that represent either end of a star’s life cycle. Some are places where stars have died, others where stars are forming. The Orion Nebula is the latter.

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At only 1,344 light-years away, the Orion Nebula is the closest and one of the brightest nebulae visible from Earth. This means it can be seen with the naked eye up to mid-March when viewed under dark skies.

The brightness of objects in the night sky as seen from Earth are measured on a logarithmic scale: the lower the number, the brighter the object. This scale means an object with magnitude 1 will be 10 times brighter than a magnitude 2 object. The Sun has a magnitude of -26, while the brightest star in the night sky, Sirius, has a magnitude of -1.46.

How to spot the Orion nebula

The Orion Nebula has a magnitude of 4, which means it is fairly faint – you’ll have to go somewhere dark and let your eyes adjust to really see it. It’s best to pick a night with no moonlight such as during a new Moon.

Finding the Orion Nebula is easy as it is in the constellation Orion, one of the most easily recognisable constellations. In February and early March, Orion will be visible in the eastern sky as soon as the Sun sets, sweeping south in the northern hemisphere then setting in the west in the early hours of the morning. In the southern hemisphere, Orion will be visible in the north, appearing upside-down compared to how it looks in the northern hemisphere.

To find the nebula, look below the three stars of Orion’s Belt (or above, if viewing from the southern hemisphere). You will see a faint line of stars, which make up Orion’s sword. The nebula is halfway down the sword and will appear as a fuzzy-looking star.

Looking for stargazing tips? Check out our complete astronomy for beginners UK guide.

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