Orion Through the Ages

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With its iconic “belt” of three bright stars, Orion is one of the most recognizable constellations in the night sky. For generations, it has been one of the first constellations young stargazers are taught to identify.

In the sky atlas Uranometria, first published by astronomer Johann Bayer in 1603, readers were treated to a detailed engraving of the constellation’s namesake, Orion the hunter. In some versions of the Greek myth, Orion was a mighty hunter killed by the sting of a tiny scorpion, and so the wintertime Orion and the summertime constellation of Scorpius are never visible in the sky together.

The early star atlas Uranometria depicted constellations such as Orion, above. ©AMNH/D. Finnin

The early star atlas Uranometria depicted constellations such as Orion, above.

©AMNH/D. Finnin


Henry Draper, a pioneer in photographing space, captured the first photo of the Orion Nebula in 1880. Draper was also instrumental in documenting the transit of Venus, a rare event during which the planet is visible passing between the Earth and Sun.

The first photo of the Orion Nebula was captured using a 50-minute-long exposure. © Harvard College Observatory Plate Collection

The first photo of the Orion Nebula was captured using a 50-minute-long exposure.

© Harvard College Observatory Plate Collection


Since Draper’s first photo, the quality of space photography has improved dramatically. The Orion Nebula, though, has remained a popular object for imaging. Photographs like this one, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, have helped astronomers learn about the roles nebulae play in the formation of stars and planetary systems.

Photographs of the Orion Nebula have become vastly more detailed in recent years. © NASA 

Photographs of the Orion Nebula have become vastly more detailed in recent years.

© NASA 


For more about how images of distant stars have been captured and catalogued over the years, check out the latest episode of Shelf Life.