Floppy Ears

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/E. Church­well (Uni­ver­sity of Wisconsin)

An ele­phant with big floppy ears peers from in this cloud of cold gas and dust in an image of RCW 49 from NASA’s Spitzer Space Tele­scope.

Explore this stel­lar nurs­ery. What shapes or sto­ries do you see? Leave a note below.

Ele­phants have never flown into space but many of the shapes and pat­terns in neb­u­lae and galax­ies look like a starry zoo. As we zoom into the plumes of gas and dust, RCW 49 shows intri­cate and lacy pat­terns that we can’t see with our own eyes. Spitzer sees the uni­verse in infrared. We feel infrared as heat. Deep within the cold dust of RCW 49, stars are being born. Their new light warms the dust just enough that it lights up in infrared. Each color of the image rep­re­sents a dif­fer­ent tem­per­a­ture of dust. Red and pink are ten­drils of dust. Green col­ors are pock­ets of gas.

Zoom into the cen­ter to look closely at a tightly packed group of blue jew­els, a small star clus­ter. Solar winds and radi­a­tion from this swarm of stars is begin­ning to clear out a bub­ble in the nebula.

Using tele­scopes like Spitzer allow astronomers to look inside a neb­ula show­ing the nebula’s new­born stars. This image is help­ing sci­en­tists under­stand how stars form.

RCW 49, also known as NGC 3247 or Gum 29, is found about 13,700 light-years from Earth toward the con­stel­la­tion Cen­tau­rus, the Cen­taur.

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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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