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Messier 78

Starforming Nebula M78 (NGC 2068), a reflection nebula, with Open Star Cluster, in Orion

Right Ascension 05 : 46.7 (h:m)
Declination +00 : 03 (deg:m)
Distance 1.35 (kly)
Visual Brightness 8.3 (mag)
Apparent Dimension 8x6 (arc min)

Discovered 1780 by Pierre Méchain.

Messier 78 (M78, NGC 2068) is the brightest diffuse reflection nebula in the sky, situated in the rich constellation Orion.

This object was discovered by Pierre Méchain in early 1780. Charles Messier added it to his catalog on December 17, 1780.

M78 belongs to the Orion complex, a large cloud of gas and dust centered on the Orion Nebula M42/M43, and is about 1,350 light years distant, about the same as the Great Nebula. It is the brightest portion of a vast dust cloud which includes NGC 2071 (northeast, lower right in our image), NGC 2067 (close northwest), and very faint NGC 2064 (southwest), all visible in our image. Together with some other nebulae, including NGC 2024 (Orion B) near Zeta Orionis (sometimes called the Flame Nebula), all these nebulae are associated with the molecular cloud LDN 1630 (from Lynds' Catalogue of Dark Nebula), a part of the Orion complex. The distance of the M78 region was measured and estimated by various authors to coincide well with that of M42 and M43.

As a reflection nebula, M78 is a cloud of interstellar dust which shines in the reflected and scattered light of bright blue (early B-type) stars, among them the brightest, HD 38563A, and second-brightest HDE 38563B, both of about 10th visual apparent magnitude. The nature of M78 as a reflection nebula was discovered by Vesto M. Slipher of Lowell Observatory in 1919 (Slipher 1919), by the investigation of its spectrum: M78 exhibits a continuous spectrum, which resembles that of the bright stars enlightening it. At its distance, M78 measures almost 3 light-years in extension.

The image in this webpage was obtained by Evered Kreimer with a 12.5-inch Newtonian from Arizona in the mid-1960s. This image acquired some late fame in February 2004 on the following occasion: Jay W. McNeil discovered a supposedly "new" nebula near M78, within the field of this image (McNeil 2004), which could not be found in a number of images taken at various epochs. However, the nebula was soon found to be obvious in the Kreimer image displayed in this page by a considerable number of attentive readers of these webpages, demonstrating that it had been in place at the time when this image was taken, and Jay McNeil had discovered another outburst of the young star feeding it (a so-called Herbig-Haro object). Meanwhile, McNeil's nebula has faded again.

In and near the nebula M78, 45 low mass stars with hydrogen emission lines, irregular variables similar to the star T Tauri, have been detected. Stars of this type are main sequence stars which vary in brightness (by about 3 magnitudes) and spectral type (which is about F or G, and similar to the chromosphere of our sun), are 4 to 5 times brighter than their spectral type would suggest, and associated with nebulosity which may be bright or dark. Probably these are very young stars which are still in their formation process.

Infrared investigations have given a clearer image of the cluster of young stars which have formed in this nebula. From 2.2-micron investigations of the Molecular Cloud associated with M78, LDN 1630 (Orion B), performed with Kitt Peak National Observatory's 1.3-m IR telescope Lada et.al. (1991) concluded that much of the young, embedded star formation is occurring in clusters, including the formation of lower mass stars. They counted a number of 192 stars, spread over an area of 7' angular diameter. After this paper, Archinal and Hynes (2003) call the open star cluster in M78 "[LDEG91] 3." It is now called the M78 IR Cluster e.g. in Simbad.

A large number of dramatic outflow sources are found in the region of M78; these so-called Herbig-Haro objects are presumably jets of matter ejected from young stars embedded in the nebulous matter of M78 where they have just formed. The discoveries by Zhao et al. (1999) brought the number of known Herbig-Haro objects in M78 to 17. A gorgeous IR image of M78 and the whole region was created by S. Van Dyk of IPAC with the 2MASS IR Telescope; these data provide an even deeper insight into the star formation process in M78.

M78 is not difficult to locate from Zeta Orionis, also named Alnitak, the easternmost star of Orion's Belt; M78 is situated about 2 degrees north and 1 1/2 degrees east of this star; a chain of 3 stars of mag 5..6, northward from Zeta, may help locating it. Alternatively, it is found roughly 1/2 deg North and 3 3/4 deg East of Delta Orionis, the NW most belt star.

Visually, M78 resembles a faint comet. It is just visible in binoculars under good conditions, as a very dim patch. Small telescopes already show it remarkably bright, and reveal the two illuminating stars, lying North preceding (NW) and South following (SE) like a double nucleus in the compact "comet head" part of M78; suggestions of a short and broad "tail" appear to reach to the South preceding (SW) end. The other nebulae in this field require a very dark sky and are much more difficult to see than M78; under very good conditions, a 4-inch can reveal NGC 2071, and suggestions of haze around M78. Stars are fewer to the west, an indication that in this region dark nebulae seem to obscure the stellar background. About 1 3/4 deg East of M78, open cluster NGC 2112 is found; this cluster is of about 9th mag and 11' in diameter, lies behind M78 at a distance of about 2800 light-years, and is much older: Estimated at about 2 billion years.

  • Historical Observations and Descriptions of M78
  • More images of M78
  • Amateur images of M78
  • 2MASS Infrared Image of M78

  • An Account of McNeil's Nebula
  • Herbig-Haro objects in and near M78
  • The M78 IR Cluster

  • SIMBAD Data of M78
  • NED Data of M78
  • Publications on M78 (NASA ADS)
  • Observing Reports for M78 (IAAC Netastrocatalog)
  • NGC Online data for M78


    Hartmut Frommert
    Christine Kronberg

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    Last Modification: October 9, 2018