Let's look at some nebulae

It's been a while. The last three months have been some of the most frustrating and depressing times in my life. I've been agonizing over what will be my most personal and revealing post and hope to have that up soon. In the meantime, let's look at some pretty space photos. For each of the images, you can click on them to see a larger version.

Screenshot from Stellarium: The constellation Orion the Hunter

The constellation Orion dominates the winter skies. It's easy to pick out because of the nice line of three bright stars that make up his belt. Orion is one of my favorite constellations, probably because the stars are so bright and easy to see, even in areas of heavy light pollution. This constellation also holds some secrets.

When you look at the three stars that form Orion's sword, hanging from his belt, the middle "star" is actually a nebula. Nebulae are vast clouds of gas and dust that have begun to collapse due to gravity. When enough material clumps together, a star is formed, so nebulae are often referred to as "star nurseries."

Image Credit: Adam Brown, The Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula (M42) is the closest of these star-forming regions at 1,500 light years away, and is bright enough to see with the naked eye in dark skies. Even in light polluted skies, you may be able to see that the middle star of the sword looks "fuzzy." Astronomers estimate that the nebula contains over 1,000 young stars. You can see a composite image of the Orion Nebula from NASA's Spitzer and Hubble Space Telescopes here.

Just to the west of Orion's belt is the Flame Nebula.

Image Credit: Adam Brown

In the bottom right corner of the photo, you can see the light from the star Alhitak, which is the left-most star in Orion's belt. This nebula is much fainter than the Orion Nebula, so you won't be able to see it with the naked eye, but it's fun to know that it's there. The Flame Nebula seems to contain older stars that have been pushed away from the center of the cluster, possibly by the formation of newer stars. A beautiful composite image of a portion of this nebula from NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory and infrared telescopes can be seen here.

It's pretty amazing to realize that stars are made from dust and gas that slowly coalesce as gravity pulls them closer together until the clump is so massive that nuclear reactions begin to occur. 

When you look up at the night sky over the next few months, see if you can pick out Orion and the Great Orion Nebula at the center of the sword.

Good hunting!

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