With the beginning of the New Year we say goodbye to the galaxies of Andromeda and say hello to the nebulae of Orion. January is the best month to capture the Orion Nebula, the most famous nebula in the sky and probably the easiest deep space object to photograph. But there are many other nebulous objects to capture this month. Here are some of my favorites:
M1: The Crab Nebula
The famous Crab Nebula, a thousand year-old remnant of a supernova, is a favorite target of most astrophotographers. This is a good target for beginners with high focal-length scopes. If you can't fit more than the Trapezium core of M42 in your field of view, then give M1 a try.
The Horsehead Nebula & Flame Nebula
I still remember the thrill I felt capturing the Horsehead Nebula—as each frame stacked up I could see the dark silhoutte grow stronger and stronger. This is a faint object, however. Unlike the Orion Nebula, which can be captured with 15 second sub-exposures, the Horsehead is best with 1 minute or longer subs.
Less than a degree away you will find NGC 2024, also known as the Flame Nebula. Many widefield shots include both the Horsehead and the Flame Nebula in one frame.
This nebula in Orion is the brightest reflection nebula in the sky. Though M78 alone is pretty small (8' × 6') it is part of a much larger complex of nebulae. Widefield views are quite nice. Head here once you've mastered M42.
IC 405: The Flaming Star Nebula
The Flaming Star Nebula is a reflection and emission nebula in Auriga. This is a beautiful nebula when shot through an Hα filter. The bright heart of the nebula is only 20' across but there are fainter nebulae all around the region. IC 410 is less than a degree away—some shots include both in the same frame.
If it were anywhere else in the sky, NGC 1977, also known as the Running Man Nebula, would be listed as one of the best and brightest in the sky. Unfortunately for its fame, NGC 1977 is just half a degree north of the Great Orion Nebula and many imagers ignore it in favor of its superlative neighbor.
If you can image a wide field or if you have the patience for a mosaic, try capturing the entire region: the Orion Nebula in the center, NGC 1977 above it and NGC 1980 below it. The three objects make up most of Orion's Sword and they look beautiful together.
This reflection nebula in Orion was imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope in January 2000. This is a small nebula, measuring only about 2 arcseconds across, you will need a decent amount of magnification and aperture to do it justice.
Giant Nebulae of January
While the above nebulae can be photographed with various equipment and at various scales, the next few objects require a wide field of view—3 degrees or more would do—about the width of six Full Moons side-by-side.
The California Nebula (NGC 1499) is a popular object this time of year. The Witch Head Nebula (IC 2118), a beautiful blue reflection nebula, is also popular, but probably more difficult, due to its faintness. Most difficult of all is probably Simeis 147, a vast supernova remnant in Taurus. Unlike the bright and compact M1, Simeis 147 (also known as Sh2-240) is very faint and very large, spanning more than 3 degrees.
If your equipment is more suited to small, bright objects, then you might try to capture some planetary nebulae. The brightest of the January batch is NGC 1535, a round, teal-colored gem with a bright blue star. At a little under an arcminute across you will need lots of magnification.
NGC 1501 in Camelopardalis is about the same size as NGC 1535 but slightly fainter. It appears like a faint bubble with intricate texture. In contrast, IC 418 in Lepus is a tiny bright oval less than 14 arcseconds in diameter.
All three of these planetaries will require precise focus and tracking; they will push the limits of your capturing and processing skills.