Posts Tagged ‘Great Nebula in Orion’

Orion Thunderbird

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/J. Stauffer (SSC/Caltech)

A thunderbird lurks in the dreamy clouds of the Great Nebula in Orion. Also a colony of hot, young stars shines their way through the enveloping folds of dust and gas.

This churning, cosmic scene is from NASA‘s Spitzer Space Telescope. The Great Nebula, also known as M42, is one of the largest star factories in the Milky Way Galaxy and one of the closest to Earth. Only 1,500 light-years from Earth, the nebula is visible to the naked eye in Orion’s sword, just below the three stars that make up the belt. Spitzer views the universe in the near-infrared; meaning basically it “sees” heat while showing most of what we would normally see with our own eyes.

Explore the image. The bright stars in the center are the hot stars called the Trapezium cluster. Radiation and howling stellar winds from these stars are sculpting and lighting the great nebula. The radiation causes the gas to glow.

Great Nebula in Orion from Hubble

Great Nebula in Orion from Hubble

Note the differences in the image at left of M42 taken from the Hubble Space Telescope. The overall features are the same with the same curling star clouds. Spitzer allows us to view into the dust just a bit more. Being able to do this shows us stars on the verge of being born. Some stars are not visible at all in the Hubble image but stand out clearly when viewed by the Spitzer.

Astronomers will continue to watch for changes in the young stars of Orion. While these young stars are finishing forming, they change in brightness. This could be due to dust clouds moving in front of the stars or the existence of cool spots on their surfaces. These stars are just infant stars; only about a million years old. Our Sun is considered middle-aged at about 4.6 billion years old.

Wonders in Orion

Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team

The Great Nebula in Orion, shown in this image from NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope, is a place of wonder. The nebula, also known as M42, shows flowers in gas, giant pillars of dust and massive stars. Strong winds from massive stars found in the center of the nebula carved out a great cavity in the nebula.

More than 3,000 stars of various sizes and brightnesses appear in this image. Look for the brightest part of the nebula. Zoom in on a group of four stars. Radiation from these stars, called the Trapezium, causes the gas of the nebula to glow showing us wispy patterns and dense dust lanes. Just below and to the right of the Trapezium, find a star with a “bow shock” around it. Like a boat in the water, gas and dust streaming away from the stars of the Trapezium flow around the star. How many other bow shocks around stars can you find?

Wander more to the right in the image and you can see arcs and bubbles formed when gas and dust carried by the solar winds smashed into cooler, denser material.

In the upper part of the image, you’ll find another nebula separated by a dense band of dust. A massive star lights up this region, known as M43. Astronomers call this a miniature Orion Nebula.

The Orion Nebula is a stellar nursery where stars are born. Some objects in the nebula came close to becoming stars but didn’t quite make it. In this image, The Hubble Space Telescope shows a glimpse of possible brown dwarf stars. Brown dwarfs are failed stars that didn’t have enough mass and fuel to cause them to ignite. These cool objects are too small and cannot sustain nuclear fusion in their cores the way our Sun does. Fusion is the power source of all stars. Astronomers used this image to see for the first time binary brown dwarfs; two brown dwarfs orbiting each other.

The nebula, clearly visible in winter skies just below the three stars that make up the Belt of Orion, is only about 1,500 light years from Earth. It offers astronomers a great place in which to study how stars are born.


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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