Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion

It’s easy to forget that when you’re looking up into the night sky, you’re truly looking out into space. The same space we send our probes and image distant galaxies. We forget how close space really is, since it seems like such an inaccessible and inhospitable place. The latter may be true, but astronomy is a way for making the former false. The exact line between our atmosphere and space is a bit fuzzy, but it you only have to travel about 60 miles (straight up) to find it.

Of the things we look out the window of our atmosphere at night and see, the most noticeable (besides the moon) are stars, due to the sheer number of them. The near and biggest planets are pretty easy to see too, since they’re so bright. Beyond these things, there aren’t many sights that really sand out to the naked eye. The (arguably) most famous though, for we northern hemisphere people, is the Great Nebula in Orion. It is great, it is a nebula and it is “in” Orion. We named this one pretty well.

M42, which is one of its many other names and certainly the easiest to type, isn’t far away in astronomical terms, a stones throw at a little under 1400 light years. I suppose that, in space, you could throw a stone at it and it would eventually make it there. It would take a while though, since ONE light year is still about 6 trillion miles. It’s pretty big, which is really why it can be so visible at this distance. The visible portion is about 24 light years across, there are dark portions beyond that though. When you see it at night, you’re actually seeing multiple nebulae. M78 is part of what most people think of as the same object.

You two are dirty, dirty nebulae.

We’re getting into the time of year when the constellation Orion becomes very visible, so take a look. You’re probably already familiar with the three bright stars that make up his belt, and if you can see those, you can probably see this. The nebula would be part of his sword. If you have some binoculars, it’s even more impressive.

So, the next time you look up at Orion on a clear night, take an extra moment and see if you can spot the nebula. As far as seeing attack ships, you may have to wait a few centuries.

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