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.

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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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