A new view of the Orion Nebula

Using the Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers have captured the Orion Nebula in a new light.
By | Published: August 17, 2006 | Last updated on May 18, 2023
Spitzer's view of M42
This infrared image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, the closest massive star-making factory to Earth. Spitzer surveyed a significant swath of the Orion constellation, beyond what is highlighted in this image. Within that region, called the Orion cloud complex, the telescope found 2,300 stars circled by disks of planet-forming dust and 200 stellar embryos too young to have developed disks.
NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Toledo
August 17, 2006
NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope resolved the Orion Nebula (M42) — one of the most popular targets of deep-sky photographers. Despite the nebula’s popularity, Spitzer’s new image reveals fresh details of M42.

The space telescope’s Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) collected nearly 10,000 exposures to compose this image. It shows the full view of Orion’s collection of pinkish dust swirls, speckled with stars, some of which are orbited by disks of planet-forming dust.

“When I first got a look at the image, I was immediately struck by the intricate structure in the nebulosity, and in particular, the billowing clouds of the gigantic ring extending from the Orion Nebula,” explains Tom Megeath, who spearheaded the research while with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Located about 1,450 light-years from Earth, M42 is as popular among researchers as it is with amateur astronomers. The region is rife with massive star formation and is the closest densely inhabited cluster of very young stars.

“Most stars form in crowded environments like Orion, so if we want to understand how stars form, we need to understand the Orion Nebula star cluster,” says Lori Allen of the CfA.

Although professional and amateur astronomers both target M42, Spitzer’s view reveals new details about the nebula — nearly 2,300 planet-forming disks in the Orion cloud complex. Each disk has the potential to form planets and its own solar system. Visible-light telescopes will miss the distant, small disks, but Spitzer’s infrared capabilities were able to resolve them.