Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Stunning Wide-Field Image of a Star Nursery



Every once in a while, I see a new astronomical picture that leaves me with my mouth open, saying "Wow!" The above image, assembled by a talented amateur astronomer, from information taken by a number of different telescopes, is one of those.

This wide-angle view is centered on a cluster of recently-born stars that is known by its catalog number of NGC 2264. Surrounding the adolescent stars is a whole region of cosmic gas and dust -- the raw material from which stars are born. The nearby gas glows with the characteristic red color of its most common constituent -- hydrogen.

At left center is the Cone Nebula, a region of gas and dust in the shape of a sideways dark cone; the energy of bright stars to the right of the cone is eating away at the sides of this thick dusty region, leaving only a cone of thicker material behind.

To the right of the Cone Nebula, you can see an opposite (larger) cone pattern of bright stars stretching rightward. Some people see the lights of a sideways holiday tree in the pattern of bright stars.

At the bottom center of the image, pointing upward into the bluish emptier region (where the energy of freshly made stars is clearing things out), you can see an odd region of gas and dust that is sometimes called "The Fox Fur Nebula." Click on the picture and take a good look -- can you see the head of a furry red fox pointing upward into the bluish region?

The entire complex of stars and gas and dust is about 2,600 lightyears away, which means the light we see tonight left this region about 2,600 years ago -- a time when humans on Earth lived a much more challenging existence and lifespans were less than half of what we enjoy today.

This remarkable picture was assembled by Dr. Robert Gendler, a physician and amateur astronomer, who is a master at working with photographic information using his computer. The image was constructed from information provided by the Subaru Telescope in Japan and the Digitized Sky Survey, put together by astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute from a number of earlier surveys of the sky. To see more information about the photo, see:
http://www.robgendlerastropics.com/Cone-Subaru-DSS.html

You can go to Dr. Gendler's home page at that site and then browse his many other wonderful images. But take a minute and just enjoy a full-screen version of the picture -- you are seeing the same process of star birth that gave rise to our Sun some five billion years ago.

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