The Orion VISTA

By Phil Plait | February 11, 2010 8:00 am

Need a new desktop image? Yeah, the ESO’s got you covered.


Holy Haleakala. Click to Orionate.

That jaw-dropper is the view of Orion as seen by the European Southern Observatory’s phenomenal VISTA telescope, a 4.1 meter telescope equipped with an infrared camera that can take pictures of enormous chunks of the night sky. This 1 x 1.5 degree view — bigger than 8 full Moons on the sky! — show the entirety of Orion’s dagger*, the group of stars dangling below the Hunter’s belt.

Obviously, they’re not all stars! In the center is the famous Orion Nebula, a star-forming factory that is among the biggest in the entire Milky Way. As fortune would have it, we’re actually rather close to it, only 1500 light years away (the galaxy is 100,000 light years across, so that qualifies as close). It’s visible to the naked eye, and binoculars show it as a fuzzy blob. Telescopes reveal its true shape and color, and our view is enhanced even more when we look in the infrared, as VISTA can, because IR light can pierce the veil of the thick dust shed by newborn stars, revealing what lies beneath.

And what’s hidden there are more stars, the young’uns blowing the gas and dust themselves. You can see the reddish streamers (really they are IR in this false-color image) showing the matter as it screams out from stars at a numbing 200 kilometers per second (120 miles/sec). That’s fast enough to cross the continental United States in 30 seconds, if that gives you any idea of the enormous velocity.

This junk slams into more material outside the star, lighting it up. Just above the main nebula you can see a horizontal stretch of matter; that’s probably bipolar emission — literally, blowing out of the two poles of a star — glowing as it moves through the thin wisp of material between the stars.

One thing I very much like about this image is the semi-illusion of the nebula being hollow. This is really best where you see bright white stars; the main bulk of the nebula itself and a smaller round region just above it. I call this a semi-illusion because it’s based on reality! There are clutches of extremely massive newborn stars there. They flood the gas around them with ultraviolet radiation as well as blowing fierce winds of material, and these carve a cavity in the nebula, creating enormous bubbles light years across. In visible light pictures this activity is hard to see, but in this infrared image it’s more obvious, since we’re seeing past the dust blocking our visible view.

That’s the power of multi-wavelength observations! By looking at objects in literally a different light, we see them in, well, a different light. Even an object as familiar as the Orion Nebula can be seen with a different perspective when viewed with new instruments like VISTA.

Right now as I write this, Orion is high in the sky at sunset. Go outside and find it; it’s easy to spot. Look to his dagger, what the hunter in myth and song used to pierce the skin of his prey, and think that we mere humans can do the same to the skin of the nebula itself, and nourish our minds with what we find inside.

* I used to point that out to students when I was in grad school, and for some reason my roommate would always chuckle and say, "Yeah, his dagger." I never did understand why.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (38)

  1. uudale

    /beavis on/

    Heh, heh, dagger! He said dagger!

    /beavis off/

    Beautiful picture!

  2. I frequent the Cloudy Nights imaging forums and someone posted an image of M-42 that really caught my eye. It’s a full spectrum shot with some extra h-alpha exposure mixed in. It’s the first image that I’ve seen of this nebula that really gave the impression of being a hollow shell, even moreso than the VISTA image here. One of the best amatuer images of M-42 I’ve ever seen.

  3. Plutonium being from Pluto

    So you got my email on this then? 😉

    Great image ain’t it? 😉

    -StevoR a.k.a. Plutonium being from Pluto

  4. Crazy Tom

    This picture is gorgeous! Suddenly the snapshot of the Orion Nebula I already have on my desktop feels woefully inadequate. Look at it there – all pink and smeary, and downright fuzzy when you get into the trapezium. Now I’m going to have to replace it with something newer and shinier, and this one will get left in my desktop images folder alone and forgotten. The effect will be a little like this commercial:

    @2 drksky

    The link to M-42 404’s me. Dead link?

  5. Plutonium being from Pluto

    One minute to SDO launch & counting -& watching!

  6. alfaniner

    The full size original is 341mb??? Can’t wait to see it, but it won’t finish downloading for a couple hours!

  7. I think I see Orion in that very picture! There is a head, arms, and a chest wth a very bright soul in it. He looks like he is on fire and swaying a bit to the left. Someone put him out!

    some people may claim that it is god or jesus, but I’m pretty sure its just orion and I’m waiting for someone to disprove me.

  8. Plutonium being from Pluto


    SDO is up & running – all nominal so far.

    Over fifteen minutes into elapsed times & NADSA TV showing lots of replays incl. one from “Patrick DOMASS” which has me

    a) laughing
    b) wondering what the blazes it stands for! &
    c) wondering if NASA realise what that acronymn sounds like? 😉

    Great to see though! :-)

    We have an new artifical star
    Sent to study our Sun
    The Atlas five has cast it far
    It mission just begun. :-)

    In the unlikely event that anyone’s wondering what this is all about click on :

    (That launch was delayed – this time its up and all nominal so far. Coverage on NASA-TV online resumes 11.45 EST with 2nd main engine burn & SDO craft separation.)

  9. Dr. Dan

    “This junk slams into more…”

    Would you use that phrase when you pointed it out to students?

  10. The Orion nebula was the first deep sky object I aimed my first wee little 40mm telescope at. Even through that poor scope’s optics, it was pretty darned amazing. In better instruments it’s got the prettiest green glow…

  11. Plutonium being from Pluto

    Is this blog on EST? Now after 3 a.m. in Adelaide, South Australia where I live & I’m trying to decide whether to stay awake & see the SDO separation or not … (Yes, I’m tired & probably definitely a bit crazy too! 😉 )

    Latest SDO launch news – so far – is here :

    Great to see another launch live on NASA TV online – my first was the WISE infrared observatory although I’ve caught a few eg. latest Endeavour mission launch – now docked to the ISS – afterwards as replays. Great feeling. :-)

    @ 9. Kuhnigget – Agreed. The Orion nebula (Messier 42 & M43 as well!) is something special even in binoculars or as a fuzzy “star” in the middle of the “handle” of the “saucepan” as we percieve it! 😉

    PS. No threadjack intended – just thought folks would like to know ’bout this, ASAP. Sorry if I’ve breeched netiquette here &, please, let me know if I have done so I can avoid doing so in future.

  12. Navneeth

    1×1.5 = 1.5 degrees squared

    Area on the sky occupied by 8 full moons (assuming 0.5 degrees width for a single Moon) ~ 1.57 (pi=3.141592654)

    “Almost as big” would have been better than “bigger than.” 😉

  13. JWB

    Yeah, Phil . . . piercing dagger image is a bit phallocentric, don’t you think?

  14. Plutonium being from Pluto

    @ JWB : Remember as someone (Freud? Jung? Skinner? ) once said – “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”.. 😉

    Maybe its just *your* mind at play there? 😉

    Incidentally, (Off Topic again sorry), while the Solar Dynamics Observatory has a number of good webpages f’er ex :

    & is on twitter, they don’t seem to have a facebook page – or not one that I can find linked anywhere.

    WISE is one step (or should that be social / public outreach network) ahead of them there! 😉

  15. I wasn’t aware of the VISTA telescope. Wow! great picture. I hope we get to see more soon.

  16. I never did understand why.

    Well, ya see Dr. Plait, when a dude and a chick love each other very, very much…

  17. PG

    The nebula looks like a scorpion to me. Neat!

  18. Doug

    “Look to his dagger, what the hunter in myth and song used to pierce the skin of his prey”

    Ugh! Why did you have to write that footnote?

  19. Jamey

    I’m a pixel slut, but *DAMN*… 12640 x 15546 px!

    And *THAT* is why storing “dpi” in an image file makes no sense. That image is what, several *TRILLION* inches per pixel? Or a fraction so close to zero it makes no sense dots per inch…

    Hum… I need an app to put these kinds of images on my screen, and pan across them in various routes. That would make one *HELL* of a screen saver!

  20. #16. jtradke:
    I knew a dude a couple decades ago who called his bachelor pad “the stabbing shed” because he used it for, uh, daggering with his junk, uh, the chicks, who, uh…
    Aw heck with it!

  21. Cusp

    I was in the office with the person who made the piccy – you never really get over the number of pixels

  22. @4 Crazy Tom: Weird. Link still works for me. Here’s the Cloudy Nights Thread.

  23. The Playboy Scientist

    Excellent quality for a ground based telescope!

  24. I swear I see the Phoenix effect in the center. Jean Grey rises again!

  25. Crux Australis

    Sometimes, I just scroll down to the bottom of your astronomy posts to read your last couple of sentences. Often, they’re as inspiring as the images themselves!

  26. Johan Stuyts

    Can anyone direct me to a store where I can buy a 196 MP graphics card and monitor? Thanks.

  27. My binoculars are Orion Vistas.
    Oh, not what you meant…

  28. Ken

    Oh sure!

    I literally just set my desktop to show my own feeble attempt at imaging Orion, and you’ve gotta show me this, with all the beautiful bits I haven’t been able to capture yet !! :)

    In case anyone is morbidly curious … my newbie attempt at imaging Orion with a 10″ reflector and DSLR camera, from a light polluted back yard can be viewed here:

  29. Cindy

    If it’s the old roommate that I think you’re referring to, I’m not surprised that he would always make that comment.

  30. Tod

    Thank you for managing to leave out your favorite nonsense word, “frakkin’.” It is refreshing to read your screeds when you use better descriptive terms like “large,” “enormous,” and “awesome.” I hate to have to keep trying to wiggle out of answering my kid when she asks what “frakkin’ ” means.

  31. Andrew

    I was looking at the Orion Nebula with my little 4in telescope last weekend. I wish our eyes could see it like that picture shows it.

  32. @ Ken:

    That’s a great shot! It may not be as detailed as the one the good doctor wrote about, but there’s something satisfying about taking it yourself, yes?

  33. Ken (a different Ken)

    Hi, Ken this is Ken. :-)

    Nice image! I’m in the earlier stages of trying to do the exact same thing. Not as nice equipment (6″ Celestron, and an older XTi camera). I only just got computer control sort of working, but the weather here has been awful. I haven’t seen a star in 3 weeks.

    Hopefully I’ll have something worth showing someday. Thanks for sharing the fruits of your labor!

    (Huh, I wonder why this ended up waiting for moderation?)

  34. omg this is totally a FAKE i can make the same pic in photoshop cs4 in five steps all you need is a compueter and one brain cell in fact its not even good mine would be better

    Kidding. Of course. This is an amazing, beautiful view of the nebula. It is too bad our weenie eyes can’t see in infrared (and with telescopic vision too.) Infrared is cool.

  35. Tod, when your kid asks what Frakking means, tell he it means the same as Frelling.

  36. The top looks like two hands about to crush the stars between them.


    Heh, curious which roomate…

  38. Jamey

    Frakking = Freaking (Battlestar Galactica had to make it SciFi-y). Freaking as in what you do when you see this gorgeous image! (Ok, I *KNOW* that’s probably not how they used it in GINO – but that’s just part of why I prefer the original.)


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