Flame of Orion

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

A flame burns in the Belt of Orion in this image from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer.

Explore the vast swath of sky covered in this image. It takes light nine years for a beam of light to cross the sprawling nebula. From Horsehead Nebula near the bottom to Orion B, WISE shows us the vast glowing gas of the area near the Orion Nebula. What shapes and stories can you tell about the Flame Nebula? Perhaps you see a flower or a jellyfish. Leave a comment below.

Although astronomers on Earth called it the Flame Nebula, the nebula glows because of the bright light of Altinak, bright blue star just to the right of center in the image. Altinak is the easternmost star in the Belt of Orion. WISE’s infrared eyes see clearly the dust warmed by Altinak’s searing radiation. The radiation coming from the star also heats the gas of the Flame Nebula, also known as Orion B or NGC 2024, enough so it can be seen in visible light.

Moving down the column of gas and dust, we come to a bright bubble in the middle. This reflection nebula is NGC 2023. The nebula is reflecting the visible light from nearby stars. Just below this nebula is a faint bump in the column of gas and dust. In visible light, we know this bump as the dramatic Horsehead Nebula. The Horsehead Nebula’s dense cloud blocks all light shining from stars behind it, highlighting the well known shape in silhouette. But WISE sees the glow of the entire cloud.

The Flame Nebula, NGC 2023, and the Horsehead Nebula are located about 1,500 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Orion, the Hunter.

WISE launched in December 2009 to study asteroids, cool stars and the universe’s most luminous galaxies.

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The ancient peoples saw pictures in the sky. From those patterns in the heavens, ancient storytellers created legends about heroes, maidens, dragons, bears, centaurs, dogs and mythical creatures...
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