A blue and yellow butterfly flits along a ridge of starlight in an image of the Vela C region by ESA’s Herschel space observatory
Explore the intricate web of filaments and cool dust in this infrared image. What stories or pictures do you see? Leave a note in the comments below.
Vela C is one of the most massive star-making regions in the Milky Way Galaxy. And it’s close, making it ideal to study the birth of stars. Herschel sees the Universe in infrared. The infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum lies just below what our eyes can see but we feel this energy as heat. Even cool clouds of gas and dust glow brightly against the cold of space and Herschel can peer into dark clouds to spot clumps of gas and dust that may be new stars.
Throughout the image a ribbon of dust made up of finer filaments meanders through the complex weave. Zoom in and look for point-like dots of light. These are protostars, seeds of new stars. Explore the blue butterfly shape in the center of the image along with the blue bubble just above. The gas and dust in these areas glow from the heat of hot new stars. Blistering radiation from these stars excite atoms in the nebula causing them to glow. These stars are also massive and will live just 10 million years or so before exploding as supernovae. Compared to our Sun’s expected 8 billion year lifespan, this is a short time.
Vela C is the most massive of four parts of the Vela molecular cloud. Found just 2,300 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Vela, the Sail of the mythical ship Argo, the nebula is one of the largest star-forming areas known by astronomers.
Asymmetric and warped, the Meathook Galaxy spins lopsided in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.Explore the tightly folded spiral arm with new blue stars dotting the image. The other spiral arm out of frame features a long tail giving the galaxy its name but you can get a better look here. What other stories or shapes do you see in this image? A bowed head adorned with a feathered headdress? Leave a note below.
The Meathook Galaxy, or NGC 2442, probably got its shape through an interaction with another galaxy. Astronomers have not been able to locate the culprit. When galaxies merge and interact, gas and dust are pushed and pulled by gravity. The spiral arms become stretched out, warped, compressed and misshapen. One of the most exciting things about a galactic collision is the rapid formation of new stars. As the new material is pushed together, pockets of gas and dust begin to glow with their own light; the birth of a new star.
NGC 2442 is home to a recent supernova. In 1999, a massive star exploded in the upper arm of the galaxy. For a brief time, the new star outshone the entire galaxy. Scientists use these images to study the last moments of the star’s dramatic death. Astronomers also use this image to study a broad range of star formation. Dotted throughout the galaxy, look for regions of red and pink. These are huge star-forming regions made of hydrogen gas. Similar to Orion Nebula or Eagle Nebula, these nebulae glow as new stars deep within their birth clouds excite the gas and light it up like a neon sign.
Sprinkled throughout the image are faraway galaxies. My favorite shines through the translucent dust just below and right of the tight nucleus.
NGC 2442 is found about 50 million light-years from Earth toward the southern constellation Volans, the Flying Fish. The galaxy is a fairly close companion to the Milky Way. British astronomer Sir John Herschel, who described one arm as being ‘hook-like,’ discovered the galaxy in 1834.