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M78 Reflection Nebula in Orion

There is something about the M78 reflection nebula in Orion that has captured my attention since the day I first saw it in an astronomy book.  Reflection nebulae are probably my favorite type of deep-sky objects in the night sky, as they seem to perfectly depict the cold vastness that is space.

M78 Reflection Nebula in Orion


The 78 reflection nebula is a stunningly beautiful veil of interstellar dust located in the constellation Orion.  The nebula is lit by a stellar nursery of young stars that illuminates the area with scattered blue light.  M78 is classified as a reflection nebula because the dust particles are simply reflecting starlight from the intensely hot, young stars beneath it.

The M78  Reflection Nebula

Astrophotography Details:

Photographed on: Multiple Nights in 2012 and 2013

Telescope: Explore Scientific ED80 with WO Flat III 0.8x FR/FF
Mount: Celestron ASCG-5
Guiding: Meade DSI Pro II and PHD Guiding
Guide Scope: Orion Mini 50mm
Camera: Canon EOS 450D (Stock)
ISO: 1600
Total Exposure: 5 Hours, 30 Minutes (72 frames – 4 and 4.5 minute exposures)
Processing Software: Deep Sky Stacker, Photoshop CC
Support Files: 15 dark frames

Guided with PHD Guiding
Stacked in Deep Sky Stacker
Processed in Adobe Photoshop CC

The telescope used for this photo:

Explore Scientific ED80

The Explore Scientific ED80 Apochromatic Refractor


Location of Messier 78

This relatively small reflection nebula is easy to overlook because of it’s proximity to much larger, brighter and more noteworthy nebulous regions such as the Orion Nebula.  M78 lies within the constellation Orion, north of Alnitak and the famous Horsehead Nebula.  It will appear as a small hazy patch through a telescope, as long as you are viewing this nebula in a sky free of moonlight and light pollution.  If you can find the Orion Nebula – head upwards to the 3 stars of Orion’s belt.  Then, travel northwest of the left most star until you reach Messier 78.


M78 location star map

A star map showing the location of Messier 78

“Many stargazers see M78 as a frosty-white featureless blob.  But look closer, remain patient, and you’ll see more.  The whole structure is distended, fanning towards the southeast like the head and tail of a small comet.” – One-Minute Astronomer


Astrophotography Processing Tips

The absolute most important factor in producing a pleasing image of this nebula is time!  My early attempts at the target were sad smudges of light in a starry sky.  The dusty details that block out star light and the produce the beautiful blue glow from behind only emerged after about 2-3 hours of exposure time.  Dark skies will help bring this object out faster.  I shot most of the data for my version of M78 from the CCCA Observatory in Wellandport, Ontario.  Aside from several careful curve adjustments, the star reduction action (Noel Carboni’s Tools) in Photoshop was essential for cleaning up the image.

View more astrophotography images in the Photo Gallery


M78 reflection nebula


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