101 space objects to see: The Horsehead Nebula

One of the most prized telescopic dark nebulae is the Horsehead Nebula in Orion. Its wide popularity comes from photographic images, not from its visual impact on the eyepiece. This magnificent celestial bust of a horse’s head – like a knight’s chess piece – is one of the most challenging objects of its kind, especially because of its small size (5 ‘) and low-contrast surroundings.

Scottish astronomer Williamine Fleming discovered the Horsehead Nebula in 1888 while scanning photographic plates at the Harvard College Observatory. Edward Emerson Barnard, who painted it in 1913, said, “This object has not received the attention it deserves,” and lists it as his 33rd object in his catalog of dark nebulae. Since then, the nebula has been known as Barnard 33 (B33), which, unfortunately, like the dark cloud it signifies, obscures the light of Fleming’s find.

We see the Dark Horsehead Nebula only because it stands out against the diffuse glow of the IC 434 emission nebula. Both objects belong to the Orion B molecular cloud, one of the largest star-forming regions near our Sun, at about 1,300 light years away. The Horsehead itself is about 4 light-years high and 3 light-years wide, and is part of a larger cosmic landscape hundreds of light-years away, which includes the Great Orion Nebula (see № 19). If we could sweep away the thick dust covering the Horse’s Head, we would find countless stars on the verge of birth.

To find the Horse’s Head, first find IC 434. This long reef of misty fog extends more than 1 ° southeast of Alnitak (Zeta [ζ] Orionis), the easternmost star in the Orion Belt. Look for a small amount of darkness in the middle of the sharp and straight eastern boundary of IC 434. Its appearance in small telescopes is more like a faded fingerprint than a horse’s head. The low power helps to concentrate the radiance of IC 434, which increases the contrast and helps to find the dark slit. The nebula was observed through 4-inch telescopes and was even observed through hand-held binoculars using an H-beta filter.


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