Why Did It Take a Telescope to Discover the Orion Nebula?

Using the newly-invented telescope, French astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc (1580-1637) discovered the now-famous Orion Nebula (M42) when he was 29 years old, 410 years ago on this day.

November 26, 1610.

But wait a minute. You and I can see a nebulous “star” below the belt of Orion with our unaided eyes under a reasonably dark sky. Why wasn’t this object discovered long before the invention of the telescope?

Apparently, there is no known report of a “nebulous star” in the sword of Orion prior to Peiresc’s discovery. Is the Orion nebula brighter now than it was a few centuries ago? Is it possible an earlier observational report somehow got missed or was not properly interpreted?

There is speculation that the Maya civilization of Mesoamerica recognized the Orion Nebula long before Peiresc’s discovery, describing it as smoke from the smoldering embers of creation.

One can only stand in wonderment at the knowledge and experiences of hundreds of generations of men, women, and children who are utterly unknown to us today. Passed from person to person and generation to generation through oral tradition, never written down and eventually lost. Or written down on documents that later disintegrated or were purposefully destroyed.

Who hasn’t wished that they could could time travel back to the past? Have you ever wondered what your current location looked like a hundred years ago? A thousand years ago? Ten thousand or more years ago? Though sending humans into the past will probably never be possible, who’s to say that we won’t eventually figure out a way to view and perhaps even hear the past, without actually being there or having the ability to change it?

First Photograph of the Orion Nebula

Henry Draper (1837-1882)

On this date 140 years ago, American physician and prominent amateur astronomer Henry Draper (1837-1882) made the first successful photograph of the Great Nebula in Orion, now usually referred to as the Orion Nebula. He used an 11-inch telescope (an Alvan Clark refractor!) and an exposure time of 50 minutes for the black and white photograph.

First photograph of the Orion Nebula, September 30, 1880. (Henry Draper)

Draper continued to improve his technique, and a year and a half later he obtained a 137-minute exposure showing much more detail.

Photograph of the Orion Nebula, March 14, 1882. (Henry Draper)

It really is amazing how image recording technology has improved over the past century and a half! At its best, film-based photography had a quantum efficiency of only about 2%, which means that only 2 out of every 100 photons of light impinging on the photographic medium is actually recorded. The rest is reflected or absorbed. The human eye—when well dark adapted—has a quantum efficiency of 15% or better, easily besting photography. Why, then, do photographs of deep sky objects show so much more detail than what can be seen through the eyepiece? The explanation is that the human eye can integrate photons and hold an image for only about 0.1 second. Film, on the other hand, can hold an image much longer. Even with reciprocity failure, photographic media like film can collect photons for minutes or even hours, giving them a big advantage over the human eye. But charge-coupled devices (CCDs) are a considerable improvement over older technologies since they typically have a quantum efficiency of 70% up to 90% or more. The CCD has truly revolutionized both professional and amateur astronomy in recent decades.

Recent Orion Nebula CCD image by Robert Gendler