Open wide and say Awwwww

By Phil Plait | April 13, 2010 7:13 am

Every now and again a new picture from a space telescope comes down the pipe* that’s a little bit different, a little bit of a step to the left. I think this image counts:


Kewwwwl. That’s the Rosette Nebula as seen by the Herschel far infrared observatory. The Rosette is a huge star forming region, and one that’s been around a while. In optical images its name is obvious; it resembles a huge flower in space. The central region looks empty, and that’s because it mainly is: fierce winds from newborn stars have excavated a giant bubble in the center of the nebula. Acting like a snowplow, they have pushed the material from the middle of the gas cloud out to the edges, where it piles up.

That’s what you’re seeing here; the inner wall of the nebula. This image is a long walk from the optical, though. It’s false color, where blue, green, and red represent the light from the nebula at 70, 160, and 250 microns. For comparison, the reddest light your eye can see is less than one micron in wavelength, so this is way far out in the IR. The reddest light in the image is coming from dust that’s only a few degrees above absolute zero!

The bright spots you see peppering the image are cocoons of gas and dust surrounding stars in the process of birth. They’re not alone; see the finger-like tendrils all pointing off to the right? Those are regions of slightly denser dust which have resisted the winds from the central stars of the nebula (off the edge of this image to the right). Like sandbars forming behind rocks in a stream, these fingers indicate that the tips are denser, and are probably where stars are forming as well.

What I can’t get over is how three-dimensional this image looks! It’s like the mouth to Hell from Poltergeist. Well, a little bit. If the mouth were 5000 light years away, 100 light years (a quadrillion km, or 600 trillion miles!) across, and kept at a chilly -260° C.

That’s a big, cold, far away mouth.

And the analogy isn’t fair, anyway. In the movie, that mouth was where you went after you die, but in reality, this cavernous cloud is where life gets started. Maybe our own Sun was born in a nebula like this; some research indicates it may have been. So while this picture may look a little bit frightening, to me it’s comforting. Even sweet.

After all, who can resist a nursery full of babies?

Image Credit: ESA/PACS & SPIRE Consortium/HOBYS Key Programme Consortia

*Some people say "pike" which is understandable (pike as in road) but I think "pipe" is funnier and apropos, so that’s what I’m sticking with.


Comments (28)

  1. Crudely Wrott

    Well, that does it. I’m going to be nebulized all day.

  2. Stellar nurseries are so cool to look at. And instead of the mouth of hell, wouldn’t be more like the birth canal of Hera? Or am I getting too much into the Milky Way mythology?

  3. “finger-like tendrils” — are you telling me they’re not actually the necks of dragons?

  4. Please embiggen !!!!

  5. Ooooh, pretty.

    When science brings us so many wonderful and wonderous things to see and attempt to understand it’s a shame that we’re largely a species that still looks for magic as an explanation.

  6. Alex

    If you click through to the ESA site there’s a link to a larger image when you click their smaller version.

  7. Messier Tidy Upper

    Magnificent! :-)

    Awesome picture … & I gotta say that it does also make me think of that line from the Babylon5technomage to Londo Mollari :

    “Like a great hand reaching out of the Sky!”

  8. Gamercow

    What would the night sky look like on a planet inside a nebula? Yes, I realize that most stars inside nebulas are too young to have accreted disks, let alone have planets, let alone have habitable planets, but if we were to take our Tardis into a nebula, what would the sky look like?

  9. mike bukhart

    Its several protostars the nebula must be a proud mother and father I’m sure the’ll grow up to be main sequence stars . This Image is amazing .

  10. Chris A.

    @Gamercow (#9):
    From what I’ve read, the nebula would not be visible. Too low of a density. The closer you’d get to it, the fainter it would be until it disappeared (to the human eye, anyway).

  11. Poltergeist Mouth at “a chilly -260° C”?

    Is this evidence that hell has finally frozen over then?

  12. Okay, ignorance mode on: What timeframe are we talking when we speak of stars being born? Billions of years presumably? And, once born, do they leave the nursery or do they fight each other until there’s only as many left as can comfortably co-exist in that region?

  13. Bob

    Hellooooooo new desktop picture….


  14. @#4: Massive embiggening available at Phil’s first link. Click on the pic and size options appear below.

  15. My question is, we always see “stellar nurseries” like this accompanied by a “our own sun may have formed this way”. If so, where did all the dust clouds go? Do the newly formed systems drift away from the clouds?

  16. jcm

    Wispy. Resembles an abstract painting.

  17. wtf

    This is all “photoshopped” so to speak..this and the rest of the images from hubble…the scientists just get random spectral data that they make their best “guesses” at how they look…color…brightness…shape…etc…so this could be totally wrong. Maybe one day we will see it up close, until then I think the Alice and Wonderland nebula that Tim Burton discovered was more amazing.

  18. Brian Too

    @16. artbot,

    My understanding is that the new stars themselves destroy their nursery. Once fusion begins a stellar wind forms and the gas clouds cannot withstand the force of that. Every bit of matter in the originating gas cloud either ends up forming part of the solid objects of the solar system or it gets pushed far, far away.

    That’s why the OP contains the phrase “…fierce winds from newborn stars have excavated a giant bubble in the center of the nebula”.

  19. MadScientist

    This is just incredible – I’ve never seen such a high-resolution far-infrared image. (But of course from the ground there is no hope of seeing through the atmosphere at those wavelengths except perhaps at a few narrow bands).

    @wtf: You can’t even see the radiation which is represented in the image; it’s all pretend (false) coloring. No one guesses at anything; colors are carefully chosen to make something look pretty or to highlight something. Sometimes there are even established coloring schemes (as with earth observations) which should be used if you want any other professional to even bother looking at your image. There is no question about the brightness or apparent shapes of any features either. An awful lot of work goes into ensuring that brightness is measured within specified limits of accuracy and precision. The brightness information cannot ever be conveyed to a human using an image since our eyes don’t work like these instruments do; all the scientific analysis is done on the measured brightnesses, not on images. Images are only there to look pretty and to give some idea of the region of space you’re talking about.

  20. mfumbesi
  21. Dave H

    “It’s like the mouth to Hell from Poltergeist.” It’s OK I didn’t want to sleep anyway O_O

  22. mike burkhart

    I was just trying to be funny with my previous comment . There is a scifi novel about a living nebula it’s called : The Black Cloud it was writen by the late astronomer DR Fred Hoyle (better known as the number 1 crtic of the big bang theroy) but the story is good To get off topic I see Discover has a article called ” How to be a backyard Galileo minus the church trouble . I have to say I have never been bothered by my Church over my interest in Astronomy both of the preists at my Church know and I’ve never been threaten with excomunication . What happened to Galileo happened in the middle ages this is the 21 century the Church dose not go after Astronomers any more as a matter of fact the Vactican has its own observatory the only Christan Churchs that criticze Astronomy are fundamentlists . So lets get out of the middle ages and come to the 21 century

  23. mike bukhart

    For those who have not read The Black Cloud hears the story the black cloud is the most bazare alien it (they theres more then one) is a cloud madde of organic matter that absorbs energy from stars for food it is mostly gas but has a solid brain in the center of it and it is intelegent and can be comunicated with by radio waves when it feeds it surounds a star for years absorbing all of Its energy then it moves on it also moves at speeds near the speed of light to the next star.

  24. WoW Nerd

    Frostfire bolt.


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