Posts Tagged ‘European Southern Observatory’

The Helmet of a Hero

ESO/B. Bailleul

Ancient bards spun tales of heroes rescuing maidens and the eternal struggle of good versus evil. So it’s fitting that a huge glowing helmet with gossamer wings should adorn the head of Thor, one of mythologies greatest figures. Gaze deep into the rich nebula of glowing gas and dust in this amazing image of Thor’s Helmet from the European Southern Observatory.

If ancients could have seen celestial objects a little sharper, they might have come up with similar stories. So it’s no surprise that present-day astronomers romanticize the amazing objects they see with spectacular names hinting at the rich mythology surrounding the stars.

Thor’s Helmet, a nebula also known as NGC 2359, is no exception. The helmet-shaped nebula is a cosmic bubble. A massive star has formed near the bubble’s center. The strong solar wind from this star pushes away gas and dust clearing an area spanning about 30 light-years. Ultraviolet radiation from the new star excites elements in the gas causing it to glow with different colors; pink and red from hydrogen atoms, blue-green from oxygen atoms.

The central star is known as a Wolf-Rayet star. Astronomers believe these extremely hot giant stars are going through their last stage of stellar evolution before exploding in a colossal and cataclysmic event known as a supernova. By exploding, the star will destroy itself, giving off more energy in a single moment than our Sun would produce in a thousand lifetimes. For short periods of time, supernovae will outshine their parent galaxies. The last visible supernovae in Earth’s skies happened in 1604.

Thor’s Helmet lies about 15,000 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Canis Major, the Great Dog. The image was taken on the ESO‘s 50th anniversary, October 5, 2012.

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The Eye of the Bird


A seagull glares from a cloud of gas glowing by the light of a new star in the eye of the bird in this image of the Seagull Nebula from the European Southern Observatory.

Explore the hot clouds of glowing gas as well as tendrils of cold dust in this stellar nursery also known as Sharpless 2-292.

The head of this nebular bird is just a small part of a larger nebula known as IC 2177. The whole expanse spans across 100 light years. Strong ultraviolet radiation streaming from the new star – looking like the seagull’s eye – excites molecular hydrogen in the star cloud causing it to glow a characteristic red. Visible light from the blue-white star, known by astronomers as HD 53367, scatters off of tiny dust particles in the nebula giving a contrasting blue haze throughout the image. HD 53367 is a type B star and is about twenty times more massive than our Sun.

The Seagull Nebula lies about 3,700 light-years from Earth toward the border between the constellations Monoceros, the Unicorn, and Canis Major, the Great Dog. Although the nebula lies close to Sirius, the brightest star in the sky, it is 400 times farther away than the nearby Dog Star. This image was produced from the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, high in the Atacama Desert in Chile.

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Strangely Shaped Ray


While this starry vista seems tranquil, the events that shaped the Pencil Nebula were nothing but quiet. Stars are born and stars die and when they do, they create amazing stellar landscapes. A star, perhaps a massive one, exploded to sculpt this beautiful starry scene that resembles an exotic bird head or a strangely shaped ray of light.

Explore the fine filaments, bright knots, and nebulous remnants of the Pencil Nebula; just a tiny piece of the Vela Supernova remnant. What shapes or stories do you see? Leave a note in the comments below.

The oddly shaped nebula, also known as NGC 2736, makes up the bright edge of this piece of the remnant. The wispy red filaments look much like a witch’s broom. The new image from the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. These glowing wisps of gas and dust are the result of the cataclysmic death of a star more than 11,000 years ago.

A supernova is a violent end to a star’s life. The blast is the result of either the death of a high-mass star or explosion of a white dwarf in a close double star system. The Vela supernova remnant is a vast expanding shell of gas. And as this shell expands it slams into the calm gas and dust surrounding it. This shockwave compresses the gas and causes the nebulae begin to glow. Those little filaments show the many shokwaves moving through the area. At first, as gas molecules are squished together, these regions are heated to millions of degrees but quickly cool as the shockwave passes. Enough lingering heat remains for observers on Earth to view the strange structures created from the shockwave’s interaction with the calm surrounding cloud.

Different colors within the nebula allow astronomers to map temperatures within the cloud of gas. Some regions glow hotly and are dominated by ionized oxygen atoms. These areas show with a blue light. Redder areas are cooler ionized hydrogen clouds.

The Pencil Nebula was discovered by British astronomer John Herschel in 1835. He described it as “an extraordinary long narrow ray of excessively feeble light.” The nebula is also called Herschel’s Ray. The ray of light is about three-quarters of a light year across. The nebula is rolling through the surrounding nebula at about 650,000 kilometers per hour (about 404,000 miles per hour). The Pencil Nebula is close too, only about 800 light-years from Earth toward the constellation of Vela, the sails of Jason’s mythical ship the Argo. This means that over the span of a human life, the starry face of the Pencil Nebula change as it moves against the background of stars.

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Shrouded Goldfish


This excitation nebula resembles shrouded goldfish in an image from the European Southern Observatory.

Explore the huge stars, bubbles and glowing dust clouds of AB7. What shapes and stories do you see? Leave a note in the comments below.

AB7 is the highest excitation nebula in either of the Magellanic Clouds, two companion galaxies near our own Milky Way Galaxy. Nebulae are huge clouds of gas and dust, the stuff that makes up stars and planets. Many of them glow from ultraviolet radiation given off by stars within the cloud. The well-known Orion Nebula and Eagle Nebula are great examples of this process. Deep in the heart of AB7, is a binary star system consisting of a huge Wolf-Rayet star and a middle-aged massive blue-white O type star. Both stars send off strong solar winds like the Sun gives off but it is 10 to 1,000 million times more intense. These winds push the surrounding nebulae creating a bubble around the star. Look within the yellowish cloud and you can see a bluish bubble. The Wolf-Rayet star in this bubble is one of the hottest stars yet discovered.

Zoom in on the green filaments to the left of the nebula. This is the remains of a supernova explosion sometime in the past.

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Elephants in the Mist


A couple of elephants wander across a celestial savannah in this image from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope.

Zoom across the pink clouds of NGC 6357. What stories or pictures do you see? Leave a note in the comments below.

NGC 6357 lies deep in the heart of the Milky Way galaxy in the constellation Scorpius, the Scorpion. Zoom into the bright stars at the center of the broad ribbon of dust. These bright blue stars are just a few million years old. New stars are being born in this chaotic cloud of gas and dust. Intense ultraviolet radiation and streaming solar winds hollow out the dust forming cavities and sculpt it into fantastic shapes. To the right, where the image was originally centered, look for the elephant trunk-like columns. These are similar to the “Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula.

Some observers think the nebula looks like a lobster. English astronomer Sir John Herschel first observed NGC 6357 during an observing trip to South Africa in 1837. It was only in the 20th century with the aid of photography that the full extent of the huge nebula was found. In infrared images (this one is in visible light), scientists noted that a dove shape dominated the left side of the nebula while the right side resembled a skull. They gave it the name “War and Peace Nebula.”

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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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