Exploring Orion, Episode 2

Sep 21, 2017
The Witch Head Nebula

The Witch Head

David Rankin


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Episode 2 - The Witch!

By now, hopefully, you should be able to spot Orion.

He rises a little late, but comes earlier each night. Soon, when you walk out just after dark, you will see his bright figure towering over you to the south. He harbors many awesome secrets, one of which … is a witch!

She stares back at the bright star Rigel as though it were her own evil creation. Truly, this area of the night sky is haunted. She is seasonally well timed and one of the tougher targets to photograph. You can make out the shape of her head in two ways that I can tell. I see a hat, a large noise, a cheekbone, and a protruding chin. What do you see?

The Witch Head Nebula
Click here to enlarge this picture!

Do you see the witch's profile?
Credit: astrophotographer David Rankin
Technical mumbo jumbo: shot with a Canon 6D, 200mm F2.8 lens at F4, 12 exposures at 300 seconds each

You may look at this photo and wonder, What in the world is going on here? Well, nothing in the world is going on here. The goings-on are happening about 900 light-years away! That is 900 years traveling at the speed of light. Light travels pretty fast, by the way, about 186,000 miles in one second. So this photograph is actually a representation of what the Witch Head Nebula looked like 900 years ago! No big deal.

There are a lot of gas clouds in outer space, and astronomers cryptically refer to them as “nebulae” (the Latin word for “clouds”). The light coming from the very bright star Rigel is passing through this gas and splits up, somewhat like that Pink Floyd poster some of you may have seen. Light is made from all colors of the rainbow, but the warmer colors (orange, red) tend to pass through the gas while the cooler colors (blue, purple) tend to bounce off the gas, making the nebula appear blue. Our sky is blue for the exact same reason. This type of nebula is called a reflection nebula, and we live inside of one! 

Where is she?

To gain a little perspective, the graphic to the right shows the location of the Witch Head Nebula inside of Orion. Easy to spot with the naked eye, but far too faint to be seen without the help of digital photography.  






About This Blog

Welcome to “This Week’s Amazing Sky,” the Almanac’s blog on stargazing and astronomy. Wondering which bright objects you’re seeing in the night sky? Want to learn about a breathtaking sight coming up? Bob Berman, longtime and famous astronomer for The Old Farmer’s Almanac, will help bring alive the wonders of our universe. From the beautiful stars and planets to magical auroras and eclipses, we’ll cover everything under the Sun (and Moon)!

Reader Comments

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I love the photograph! Being

I love the photograph!
Being a amateur astrophtographer I am confused by the technical jargon saying the exposre is 300 seconds with a focal length of 200mm. This should create long star trails unless you have a tripod with tracking head on it or computer sofware to manipulate the image. Can you expand on your methods?

This is the first constellation that I remember my father pointing out to me. We spent numerous winter nights looking and studying the many interesting features within this constellation. I have continued this with my daughters and now my grandson.

Hey Barry, I just gave the

Hey Barry,

I just gave the basic exposure info. The mount used was the Orion Atlas EQ-G autoguided. You can get more info on my equipment and methods from my website http://www.rankinstudio.com


After it was mentioned, I did

After it was mentioned, I did see the witches hat, shoulder, nose and a small circle, which could be an eye. In the city we can't see all this, but getting away from the city light pollution it all stands out better

Light pollution is a major

Light pollution is a major issue of our day. Not only does it destroy the physical connection with the night sky, but it also wastes tons of energy! I'll be exploring this issue more in later posts. 

Beautiful shot. You might

Beautiful shot. You might need to add that Pink Floyd poster!

Thanks! I figured it was a

Thanks! I figured it was a pretty well known image. Easy to find via google search :)

All I can say is O M Golly

All I can say is O M Golly Gee whiz...this is a fantastic view. Thank you...

Thanks! Something else isn't

Thanks! Something else isn't it? Amazing stuff out there, and plenty more to come :)

You are my eyes...since I

You are my eyes...since I have no telescope. Looking forward to all the tomorrow's can hardly wait. ;)

This is really an awesome

This is really an awesome shot!

Thank you George!

Thank you George!

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