The unfamiliar face of beauty

By Phil Plait | April 5, 2010 8:00 am

The folks at Spitzer Space Telescope recently released a new image, and it’s a stunner:


Wow, what beauty! This picture shows the famous Orion nebula, one of the galaxy’s largest and most active star forming gas clouds. Spitzer is an infrared telescope, so blue here depicts light at 3.6 microns, roughly 5 times the wavelength your eye can see, and red/orange is 4.5 microns.

I could go on and on about the ethereal beauty of this image, about how we can actually see stars forming here, about why there are streamers and shock waves that sculpt this vast light-years long structure. But you can find me expositing at length on all those topics in other posts about other nebulae. That’s not the point I want to make here.

When I first saw the image, the email from JPL had the subject line "Colony of Young Stars Shines in New Spitzer Image", so I didn’t know what nebula it was showing. I simply clicked the link, and the image above popped up. I smiled when I saw it because of its beauty, at least at first. But after a moment I was puzzled. The nebula looked familiar, but for a brief moment I couldn’t place it. Then I focused my attention on the big cloud on the left, and my mind snapped into clarity.

hst_m42Any amateur astronomer on this planet can identify the picture at the left in a heartbeat. That’s an optical picture of the Orion nebula, one taken using visible light (the picture is by Hubble; click it to get more info and access to much, much larger versions). I’ve rotated the picture to match the one from Spitzer; you can see the same curved shock front going across the lower left corner, and the round comma-shaped cloud with a star near its center to the right. While the Hubble image is far more detailed (and colorful!) than what you see through an eyepiece, it still strongly resembles the view through a good telescope. But the Spitzer image…?

Have you ever met up unexpectedly with a friend you haven’t seen in five years? Maybe they grew a beard, or lost weight, or dyed their hair, or changed their clothing style. It’s the same person, clearly, but somehow different. It takes a second to recognize them, and when you do, it’s a bit of a jolt.

That’s exactly how I felt when I saw the Spitzer image (and like many an astronomer, I consider Orion an old friend). Spitzer’s image is just a little bit into the infrared, enough that details are different while the overall shape and features are the same. I knew it was my old friend, but it took me a moment to recognize its face.

And in many ways, like seeing that acquaintance after a few years, there were new things to learn, new ways to experience our friendship. The stars in the Spitzer image that are in the narrow bridge between the two halves of the nebula seem a bit more vibrant, a bit more obvious… as they should, since they are young stars in the throes of birth, and veiled substantially by dust. More stars overall are apparent in the image, since fainter ones can shine through the dust in the infrared, while their light is blocked by that dust in the visible. The streamers in the infrared image are more vivid, but the dust features less so, again as expected, but still somehow new and interesting.

In my travels I do happen to run across friends I haven’t seen in many years, and when I have time to actually sit and chat, I’m delighted when they have grown and done things they have previously not experienced. It brings a new side of them to light for me, lets me see them in a new way and appreciate them all the more.

And this is true on Earth as it is in the heavens. There are so many things to see in and above this world, and so many ways to see them! New eyes, new perspectives, new ways of seeing… it makes me always eager to find out what’s next, and to cherish what we already know.


Comments (20)

  1. Cobey

    Very nice Phil. No one can relate Astronomy to everyday life like you.

  2. Gary Ansorge

    Cool! Reminds me a little of the nebula in Wrath of Khan.

    Didn’t we blow that up with the Genesis device?

    What’s the average particle density in such nebula? Would a visiting starship even know they were in the midst of such if they were observing it in the visible light spectrum?

    Gary 7

  3. Dave

    Nice! If you use the zoom function on the Hubble page an object is viewable. Any idea what it could be?

  4. Boris

    I combined the two images, if anyone wants to view them one on top of the other:

    I positioned both of the images according to the more visible stars and clusters, so it’s pretty much accurate (there might be like 1px skew at one side of the image, but it’s not really noticeable)

  5. I recently compiled an animated short from raw images of Dione from Cassini spacecraft taken March 26. I am wondering what moon is passing behind Dione. I had thought perhaps Tethys. Here is the Youtube video:

  6. ret3

    The left half of the first image, and all of the second image, kinds remind me of Swamp Thing.

  7. Ray

    If you turn the first image to the left 90 degrees it looks like Jesus. Or maybe Ted Nugent. Either way, kinda freaky.

  8. kevbo

    @4. Boris



    Gary Ansorge:

    Cool! Reminds me a little of the nebula in Wrath of Khan.

    Like, er… click here. ūüėČ

  10. Leigh

    @Dave: You’re right! If you zoom in on the Hubble site’s picture (without moving from the starting position in the white part of the nebula), there is definitely an object of some sort.

    In the ‘Fast Fact’s section of that page, it says this: “The Hubble data was superimposed onto a ground-based image taken from the 2.2 meter telescope at the European Southern Observatory ‚Äď La Silla.”

    It seems likely the object was picked up by the La Silla telescope, not the Hubble. It would be rather amusing if it turned out to be the Hubble itself. Infinite regress… almost. :)

  11. Jove

    those are awesome. when are we going to have bionic eyes to see infrared?

  12. mike burkhart

    I was just looking at the Orion nebula last week in my telescope . This was during my vacation form this blog (not that I needed it but I sometimes think I run my mouth to munch on hear ) I have to admit this view is better than any I can get thro my telescope. Witoh is why I sometimes go to a Huble space telescope site that has most all of its images.And I say keep those images comeing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! P.S. Im sory about the referces to Ghostbusters I made on the so called ghost image that Phill thought looked like a certain male body part but I like that movie and the video game in fact I watch Ghostbusters around Halloween and I think the movie is very funny .

  13. jcm

    “There are so many things to see in and above this world, and so many ways to see them! New eyes, new perspectives, new ways of seeing‚Ķ it makes me always eager to find out what‚Äôs next, and to cherish what we already know.”

    I wish the same thing could be said about creationist and the anti-science, and in general, the anti-reality crowd.

  14. Robert Hurt

    Phil, you have such a cool way of phrasing this stuff. But you’re right… every time I get the chance to look at the Orion Nebula in a different way, or even better, get to lay out the image like this one, it is like reacquainting myself with an old friend!

  15. Brian Too

    @3. Dave,

    Just as long as the object isn’t a cube. It isn’t cubic, is it?

    No, no. Don’t tell me. Best not to know. Carry on!

  16. Leigh

    @15. Brian Too,

    Not a cube… but have you read Rama by Arthur C. Clarke? …..

  17. Gary Ansorge


    Thanks for reminding me how much he OVERACTS,,,

    Gary 7

  18. JD

    haha here’s what I see when looking at the nebula:


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