Find the Orion Nebula

It’s one of the highlights of the sky, but many beginners have trouble locating the Orion Nebula. This is probably because photos such as the one at the top make it look brilliant and vivid, while the real thing is really quite pale and colourless as seen visually.

So before you put your binoculars away and give up, follow our guide to knowing where it is and what to look for. This is the ideal time of year to look for it, as it is in the evening sky right through to April.

The Orion Nebula as photographed through a 200 mm amateur telescope. Credit Robin Scagell

Tip 1 – Get dark skies

In a dark country sky you can spot the nebula with the naked eye, but you won’t see any detail. You’ll need binoculars or a telescope to see it properly, and even from a light-polluted area you can pick out its main features. But the first thing to do is to get as dark a sky as you can. This doesn’t necessarily mean trekking out into the wild, though. Even from suburban locations you can maximise your chances with a bit of planning.

Wait for a really clear sky rather than just an average one. The TV weather forecast can help, because what you need is a moisture-free air mass, which usually means cold polar air, coming from the north. This can occur either before a high-pressure system crosses the country, or when there is a cold front within a low-pressure system. Neither of these will guarantee clear skies, but they can help.

Wherever you are, avoid local lights and maybe find a spot such as a park or even the local graveyard where you can escape the direct glare of lighting. Every little helps, as some slogan writer said.

A drawing of the Orion Nebula
A drawing of the Orion Nebula made using 15 x 70 binoculars from Burnley, Lancs, by Mike Hezzlewood.

Tip 2 – Get dark-adapted

If you’ve been watching TV or gazing at a computer screen, then look out of the back door from your brilliantly lit kitchen to see if it’s clear, the chances are that you won’t see many stars. Your eyes need some time to get adjusted to the dark, and the bluish light from screens is the worst possible type for dark adaptation. Give yourself a few minutes before you decide just how clear the sky really is. And have a red torch handy – a cycle back light is ideal – because this will have very little effect on your dark vision.

Tip 3 – Find Orion

Right now, Orion is due south at about 8 pm, and it’s visible throughout the evening. Use our  star map to help you. The stars of Orion are among the most easily spotted in the sky, with the three stars in a line of Orion’s Belt surrounded by a quadrilateral of four bright stars.

wide-field view of Orion nebula
Orion’s Belt and the Orion Nebula seen with a field of view of 6º, similar to that of wide-field binoculars. Image credit: Robin Scagell/Galaxy

Tip 4 – Find the nebula

If you have binoculars, put the middle star of the Belt at the top of the field of view. Now the nebula should be near the bottom of the field of view. This works for typical binoculars magnifying 7 to 10 times. What you’re looking for is not a brilliant swirl of red gas in the photos but something much paler and more transparent.

The fact is that our eyes don’t bring out the colour shown in photos, because we don’t see in colour at low light levels, even through binoculars or a telescope. Look for a vertical line of fairly faint stars. The nebula is in the middle of this line of stars. A telescope has a smaller field of view so this trick doesn’t work, but aim for the same spot as shown on the map and use the lowest magnification you have.

Tip 4 – Use averted vision

This is a trick used by astronomers all the time. The centre of our vision isn’t as sensitive to light as the regions farther out. So the idea is to look slightly away from the nebula itself, and with a bit of practice you can see a surprising amount of detail even though you aren’t looking directly at it. You should be able to pick out the main features, such as the wing-like extensions and the dark area in the centre.

Using a telescope you may be able to see that there are four stars close together in the centre, in the shape of a trapezium. This shape is known as – wait for it – the Trapezium. Many photos don’t show it well because they overexpose the central regions, but they are more easily seen through a telescope.

So wait for the next dark night and have a go. Once you have mastered the skills of finding the Orion Nebula you can go on to more challenging objects.