Orion's WISE head

By Phil Plait | April 15, 2011 7:00 am

Yesterday, the Universe just got a little bit more accessible: about 57% of the WISE mission’s infrared data of the sky has been released and can be searched online. Instructions on how to tap into that archive are available as well.

WISE mapped the entire sky in the infrared and found a treasure trove of fantastic objects (see Related Posts at the bottom of this post). As part of the news of this data release, NASA put up an image I hadn’t seen before, and it’s really amazing: the Lambda Orionis Nebula:

[Click to ennebulanate, but do it with care: the high-res version is a whopping 15,800 by 14,700 pixels and weighs in at 25 MB!]

It may look entirely alien, but you’ve probably seen this part of the sky before. See that blue star in the lower left? That’s Betelgeuse! Marking Orion’s shoulder, Betelgeuse is a red supergiant, destined one day to go supernova. It looks blue in this image because WISE sees in the infrared, and uses false colors. What’s colored blue in the image is actually light at a wavelength of 3.4 microns (the reddest light our eyes can see is about 0.7 microns). Cyan represents 4.6-microns, green is 12 microns, and red is 22 microns.

Betelgeuse puts out a lot of light in what we think of as red, but to WISE that’s actually a short wavelength, so the star looks blue in the picture. Green comes from organic long-chain molecules, while red is from warm dust. The star Bellatrix, Orion’s other shoulder, is the greenish star on the right. If you’re familiar with Orion, you’ll get the idea this picture covers a big region of the sky: hold your fist out arm’s length with your wrist line at Betelgeuse, and it will just about cover this image!

What you’re seeing is a thick, dense dust cloud. At the center is the star Lambda Orionis (the red one in the middle of the ring), a supergiant that, along with other massive stars, is warming up this vast cloud of material about 130 light years across.

It looks a lot different in visible light. This shot here is from the supremely talented astrophotographer Rogelio Andreo, and is part of an enormous mosaic of Orion that is so tremendous I chose it as my top astronomy picture of 2010. I cropped it to roughly the same field of view, and you can see Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, and the nebula. The pink glow is from warm hydrogen, and that’s a sure sign of star formation. The dust ring in the WISE picture is on the outside of the hydrogen, where temperatures are somewhat cooler.

Look carefully at the visible light image: see the dark ring around the pink gas? That’s the dust ring seen by WISE! That dust strongly absorbs visible light, hiding the stars behind it. But in the infrared, where WISE sees, it glows brightly.

Remember, this is just a big bite of what WISE has seen, but is nowhere near all of it. Lurking in its data are millions of galaxies, untold nebulae, asteroids, comets, and much more. If you have a favorite object (I have hundreds) then take a look at the archive and see if they’re in there.

Related posts:

Shocking star is shocking. Shocking, I say!
In galactic collisions, might makes right
A WISE view of a small neighbor
Warm dusty rings around a weird binary star (probably my favorite WISE pic!)
WISE finds the coolest stars. Literally.
The seven WISE sisters
A WISE flower blooms in space
The first spectacular views of the sky from WISE
WISE uncovers its first near-Earth asteroid!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures, Top Post

Comments (21)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    A very WISE choice indeed! 😉

    Superluminous news & images here – although a blue Betelguese for the archetypal red supergiant just seems wrong! 😉

    Great write up here BA – thanks. :-)

  2. Jason D

    Be careful to distinguish between Mb (megabit) and MB (megabyte). The difference is a factor of 8.

  3. Messier Tidy Upper

    There’s a good if smallish unaided eye view of Orion for context here :


    with stars labelled on photo finderchart or whatever you’d call that. :-)

    More about Betelgeux here :


    Plus :


    provides more on Meissa as Lambda Orionis is literally properly named. 😉

    All via James B. Kaler’s superluminous ‘Stars’ website.

    Hope folks find these links interesting / useful / enjoyable – preferably all three. :-)

  4. about 57% of the WISE mission’s infrared data of the sky has been released

    57%? What an odd amount of data to release. And oddly precise. It sounds like the 83% of numbers that are precise that I hear (made up like that one). 😀

  5. Tuttle

    Yea, odd. Betelgeuse (contrasted with the blue Rigel and Bellatrix) is my go-to star for showing people stars have color.

  6. uudale

    Question from a non-astronomer – and forgive me if this was brought up previously – but is WISE actually finding more dust than what we knew existed, or is it just imaging what we already know exists? In other words, does this change the amount of matter we thought previously existed in the universe?

  7. Bobby

    I’m a sucker for hi-res astronomy pictures and this one is pretty cool.
    And that big Orion mosaic from top 2010 – I got it printed out as a big poster that now hangs on my door. It’s awesome! Thanks for all the pictures you show us, BA.

  8. Michel

    Jaw droppingly beautiful!

  9. Chris Winter

    I’ve seen organic molecules glittering in the night off the shoulder of Orion…

  10. Eric Pawtowski

    If I squint at it just right, I can just about make out the NCC-1701 towards the top (a ways above Lambda Orionis) and a Romulan Warbird near the bottom (a bit to the left of center). Is the Neutral Zone anywhere near Betelgeuse? :-)

  11. One thing that I wonder about, as a political scientist, is whether data releases like this are used by other researchers to do more science. That’s common in the social sciences, and is really expanding the scope of who can do research. It would be cool if that was true in astronomy too.

  12. Nigel Depledge

    Uudale (6) said:

    Question from a non-astronomer – and forgive me if this was brought up previously – but is WISE actually finding more dust than what we knew existed, or is it just imaging what we already know exists? In other words, does this change the amount of matter we thought previously existed in the universe?

    IIUC, most of the dust we see in the WISE images is stuff we already knew existed, because of the way it occludes our view of more distant stars.

    What WISE is showing us that’s really new is just how much structure there is in these dust clouds.

  13. Dominic Benford

    @ Larian LeQuella:

    You asked about 57%… the sky coverage is documented in the WISE Explanatory Supplement:

    The requirement was to release at least 50% of the sky in the first release, and so some margin was added to allow for problems with data processing. The result was 57.35% and is known precisely.

    @ Jeff Johnson:

    The last mid-IR all-sky survey was IRAS, launched in 1983. In the two decades following its data release, astronomers continued to cite IRAS data at the rate of about 350 publications per year with no sign of clear decline.

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Dominic Benford : The last mid-IR all-sky survey was IRAS, launched in 1983.

    Not the 2MASS survey – wasn’t that IR or am I getting it mixed up with something else?

  15. QuietDesperation

    weighs in at 25 MB!

    ZOMG! Not megabytes!!1!!!2!

    But seriously, did you post this from the 1990s? We’re streaming HD video off of Netflix at 2 to 4 megabits per second, now. 25MBytes is less than 8 seconds.

    (QD saves file to desktop)

    Yup, just about 6 seconds.

    Bellatrix. Wasn’t that Sirius Black’s sister?

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    This :


    is how the WISE release was reported -with photogallery – on one Aussie news site.

    Many of the photos will be familiar to readers here but some of the captions … like

    “A giant nebula around the star Orion’s head. ”

    Aaarrrrgghhh! 😮

    Is it really so hard for the reporters to use the correct names and not confuse constellations (& parts thereof) and stars?

    @#14. Here :


    is the link to the wikipage on the Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS) which was indeed in the infrared – at three wavebands – and took place from 1997 to 2001.

    @ 15. QuietDesperation : Bellatrix. Wasn’t that Sirius Black’s sister?”

    Yes indeed – and is also proper name of Gamma Orionis the star she was named after! 😉


    Plus a couple of navy vessels and an icelandic rock band. :-)

  17. Jeff

    if all the green area is from organic long chain molecules, then the universe has a heck of lot of organics in it. No wonder earth at least has “life” on it, nothing but elaborate organic molecules. Which underscores it is the electromagnetic nature component to the universe that gives rise to “life” and “consciousness”.

    What do us humans really know about nuclear forces from our experiences? practically nothing.

    And what do we know about gravity from our experiences, plenty, but relatively boring events.

    But electromagnetism and particularly the complex electromagnetic interactions which compose living systems is where the action is at for us humans.

  18. Dominic Benford

    @Messier Tidy Upper:

    Yes, 2MASS was an IR all-sky survey, but you can divide the infrared more finely. 2MASS was a near-IR survey, whereas WISE is a mid-IR to far-IR survey. IRAS was a mid-IR to far-IR survey (overlapping with WISE, but going to longer wavelengths). COBE also conducted an all-sky survey with its DIRBE instrument that covered wavelengths from the near-IR to far-IR, so I should really have mentioned that one too (as it’s more recent than IRAS, but not as recent as 2MASS). However, it was designed with a very broad beam for measurements of diffuse emission rather than individual objects.

    (Wavelength nomenclature is somewhat subjective; the above is therefore my opinion rather than objective fact.)


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