Red Lagoon

By Phil Plait | April 22, 2010 7:40 am

When I was a kid, I used to haul my 25 cm ‘scope out to the end of the driveway every clear night to observe. In the summer, one of my favorite targets was the Lagoon Nebula: it’s bright, easy to find, and even with the frakkin’ streetlight I had to peer past, details in the vast gas cloud were easy to spot.

But I kinda wish I had access to a 1.5 meter telescope. Their view is a wee bit better:


Wow! Click to embiggen, or grab yourself a ginormous 2000×2000 pixel image if your current desktop is boring. Compared to this, I bet it is.

This image of the Lagoon was taken using the European Southern Observatory 1.5 meter Danish telescope in La Silla, Chile. It’s actually kinda sorta true color, using filters that mimic the sensitivity of the human eye.

If you could find a nice dark spot away from city lights, the Lagoon is actually bright enough to spot with your unaided eye, which is quite a feat considering it’s 40 quadrillion kilometers away — that’s 40,000,000,000,000,000 if you like your zeroes. Even from moderately light-polluted skies it’s easy in binoculars.

The Lagoon is one of those giant star-forming regions I’ve written so much about. And it’s big: a hundred light years across, and busily forming lots and lots of stars.

A wider view of it shows why it’s such a great target for small telescopes. It’s bright, colorful, and has lots of cool swirls and shock waves that accentuate its shape. It’s also located between us and the center of the galaxy — think of it like being towards downtown of a big city when you live in the suburbs — so that whole area of the sky is lousy with gorgeous, interesting things to see.

That also makes these objects great targets for large telescopes, because then we can see all kinds of incredible details. The more of these we study, the better we understand the environment where stars are born, including the Sun. There’s lots of science here… but when I look at images like this, I can’t help but think of that poor dorky teenager (me!) struggling mightily to get that giant, heavy telescope positioned just right so he could see a few wisps of gas gazillions of kilometers away.

All I can do is mentally smile and give him a virtual decades-later pat on the back. Keep at it, kid. It’ll pay off. I promise.

Image credit: ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/ R. Gendler, U.G. Jørgensen, K. Harpsøe

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (20)

  1. Marcelo

    Wait, where’s Brooke?

  2. Kyle

    Well my current desk top is the latest Mars avalanche. But that is a very pretty picture. When it clears up I’ll have to haul out my scope and take a look.

  3. Lyr
  4. Brian S.

    I wonder what my life would have been like if I’d had a decent scope when I first became interested in astronomy, rather than the crappy department store reflector my parents bought for me. I could barely keep it stable enough to get the moon into view. I did as much unmagnified observing as I could, (thank the FSM the skies were still relatively dark in the mid 70’s) but the frustration of trying to do more took its toll and I moved on to other things.

    Kudos to whoever got that scope for you, Phil.

  5. Ray

    What, you don’t have a 1.5m scope in your backyard? What kind of Astronomer are you?

  6. I had a one and a half meter telescope. Sadly, it was only a few centimeters wide. (weeps)

  7. Adrian Lopez

    My current desktop is a picture of the Moon that I took myself, but this picture is nice enough that I’m tempted to make the switch. I’ll first have to see how desktop text renders on top of it, since not all great-looking images are suited to become desktop backgrounds.

  8. Some ambitious amateurs are building telescopes in the 1.5m range. Check out Group 70 (, a non-profit group of amateurs who are planning a 1.8m (70″) reflector in California. I don’t know how far they are along, but the mirror is complete, which is a big part of the battle.

  9. Charlie Young

    25cm? That’s a pretty big backyard (or in your case, front yard) telescope. I would have drooled for one when I was a kid. I settled for a pretty nice microscope instead and ended up liking biology much more.

  10. I had a crappy refracting scope from Edmund Scientific when I was a kid. :( I could barely get a good view of the moon!

  11. jcm

    My desktop wallpaper currently features the milky way from the Astronomy Picture of the Day
    Oh, check out new video from the sun

  12. Crux Australis

    Mine’s the Cone Nebula from APOD a few days ago.

  13. My desktop is a picture of the Orion nebula… geek…

  14. Thomas

    Pretty. But I just loaded Astro Soichi’s pic of Tokyo from the ISS.
    Have to put the Lagoon in the reserves.

  15. Patrick

    Wow, I wish I had a scope that big as a kid. All I had was a crappy 60mm Orion.

  16. gopher65

    My current desktop is a great picture of Saturn that WASN’T featured in the best pics of 2009! Booo!


  17. But my Desktop is Professor Brian Cox… I just put him there. Maybe next time.

  18. Messier Tidy Upper

    Great image, awesome object a.k.a. M8 from Messier’s Deep Sky catalogue of objects that aren’t comets. :-)

    For more info. see :

    It has an NGC number too but then nobody uses that for it! 😉

  19. Justin

    When looking at that image, specifically the feminine-shaped dust cloud (I know, such a romantic way of putting it) near the middle, it reminds me of ‘Winged Victory’ in the Lourve. It looks so graceful.

    Needless to say, beautiful image.

  20. DennyMo

    Speaking of scopes, I’ve been looking at Dobsonians, was intrigued by the portability of Meade’s LightBridge. But wouldn’t an open truss structure let in too much ambient light? If you’re way out in the middle of nowhere, no problem. But for typical suburban driveway viewing, would a closed tube be better? Or does it matter?


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