To the Maya of Central America, a triangle of bright stars in the constellation Orion represented a hearth. And a smudge of light at the center of the triangle represented the smoke of the hearth fire.
It apparently took western culture a while longer to recognize the "smoky" nature of this smudge of light, which is known today as the Orion Nebula. The first mention of it, in fact, came 400 years ago.
In late November of 1610, European lawyer and amateur astronomer Nicholas Pieresc was studying Orion with a small telescope. On the night of the 26th, he wrote that he saw two stars in Orion's sword, along with a nebula. Over the next several weeks, he saw it several more times.
Pieresc didn't pass along the news to other astronomers, though -- in fact, his discovery remained unknown until the early 1900s. So several other astronomers rediscovered the nebula over the next few decades.
Today, the Orion Nebula is one of the most-studied objects in the galaxy. It's a gigantic cloud of gas and dust. This cloud has given birth to thousands of stars, and still more are taking shape there today. So it's a cosmic laboratory that allows astronomers to study how stars are born.
Orion clears the eastern horizon by about 8 o'clock tonight. Its most prominent feature is its belt of three stars, which stands upright as Orion rises. The Orion Nebula is to the right of the belt -- a "smoky" blur of light that's giving birth to new stars.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2010
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.