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If we could go back in time, more than four and a half billion years ago, we could watch our solar system being born: a newborn star surrounded by developing planets, one of which became our own Earth. We also would see a vast cloud of gas and dust that was spawning many other stars around the Sun.
Of course, we can’t actually go back in time. But we can see what the Sun’s birthplace might have looked like — simply by observing the brightest constellation in the sky.
Orion the hunter climbs into view in the east by around 9 o’clock, and is high in the south after midnight. It features three bright stars in a row, which make up Orion’s Belt.
Below the belt is a row of objects that makes up Orion’s Sword. If you look carefully, you’ll see that one of the stars in the sword looks fuzzy. That’s because it’s not a star at all. Instead, it’s the Orion Nebula — a cloud of gas and dust that’s giving birth to thousands of stars.
Astronomers recently discovered how this great star creator may have formed. They’ve found that the nebula is just a small part of a ring of dust that’s 330 light-years across. This suggests that a cluster of hot, bright stars once inhabited the ring’s center. Their radiation pushed on the surrounding clouds of gas and dust, causing them to collapse and give birth to new stars. One of those clouds was the Orion Nebula — giving us a view of a stellar nursery like the one that cradled the young Sun.
Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2015