Alphas in the heart of the Omega

By Phil Plait | January 5, 2012 7:00 am

After having recently posted an interesting picture of the results of star formation in a nearby galaxy, here’s another example, but far closer: an incredibly detailed image of the heart of the Omega Nebula, where stars are being born from huge clouds of gas and dust:

[Click to ennebulenate, or grab an even bigger version.]

This image was taken using the 8.2 meter Antu telescope, one of four making up the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. What you’re seeing here is the central region of a much larger complex of gas and dust located about 6500 light years away toward the center of our galaxy. The whole thing is about 20 light years across, and perhaps as many as 1000 stars are in the process of being born or were recently formed there.

The red color is due to the presence of warm hydrogen gas, the basic building material of stars. It’s being lit up and is glowing due to very young, massive and hot stars — the alpha dogs, if you will — flooding the nebula with ultraviolet light. The dark material is actually dust, which is opaque in visible light, so it blocks the glow from material behind it.

That dust really caught my eye: some of it is not shapeless and random, but has been sculpted into very long, very thin wisps and tendrils. Most of these are parallel, which is a big clue to what causes them. They are most likely being shaped this way by shock waves; supersonic material blasted out from those same young, hot stars. These powerful stellar winds of subatomic material race out and slam into the surrounding material, compressing it. Waves from various stars can also collide, creating very thin streamers like this. Some are so narrow they’re barely resolved in the picture at all.

The Omega Nebula is a big, bright cloud that’s easy to spot in the summer sky; I observed it countless times as a kid with my telescope. If I can spot it with my amateur equipment, that means that big ‘scopes really see fine details. But they also can give us deep, spectacular overviews as well; the inset image here is from the redundantly-named Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope (VST to its friends) showing far more of the region. The first picture above is just a teeny bit of this one; click to embiggen it.

And even this isn’t the whole schmeer; the Spitzer Space Telescope got an image of all this plus even more of the interstellar material located nearby. That volume of space is huge, and it’s a complete mess!

But it’s certainly lovely. The scientific aspects of these sorts of surveys are obvious enough — learning about how stars form and how they affect their environment is a key part of understanding the whole cycle of stellar life — but there is an obvious beauty to it as well. In fact, the first image was taken as part of Cosmic Gems, an educational program to help foster and increase an understanding of astronomy and science in the public… and that, for me, is the alpha and omega of what I do, too.

Image credit: ESO; ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM. Acknowledgement: A. Grado/INAF-Capodimonte Observatory; ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM. Acknowledgement: OmegaCen/Astro-WISE/Kapteyn Institute


Comments (16)

  1. ceramicfundamentalist

    “Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope” – I’m wondering when some observatory is finally going to have a sense of humour and call their scope the “Astronomically Large Telescope”.

  2. @ceramicfundamentalist My knowledge of astronomy is mostly limited to Phil and Pamela Gay, both of whom have a great sense of humor (Phil’s puns excluded, of course … ). I wonder if that’s a general trait of the profession, or an astronomically large rarity.

  3. renke

    “Overwhelmingly Large Telescope” – humorous enough?

    Unfortunately the concept was too expensive…

  4. Brasidas

    Is there a star with a dusty disc around it near the top right? It’s about 5 o’clock from the brightest white star up there. The embiggened version shows it better – there seems to be light coming from above and below a narrow dark lane.

  5. ceramicfundamentalist

    Yes, I am familiar with the Overwhelmingly Large Telescope. But where do you go after ‘overwhelming’? Astronomically>Overwhelmingly>Very

  6. Melusine

    I love these words you make up: ennebulenate

    You should have a dictionary of synonyms for looking at a higher resolution: “embiggen”, etc.

  7. Shane

    Awesome pictures/post, I see a frustrated face in the first picture.

  8. Spying on the Omega Nebula? You’re gonna make some batarians angry…

  9. #1 ceramicfundamentalist, #3 renke:
    Someone once published a paper entitled – I kid you not – “The Super Huge Interferometric Telescope”. I assume that was deliberate, just to see if they could get away with it.
    I believe there is also a design study somewhere, known informally as the FLT…

  10. jck

    What would the night sky look like to someone living in that nebula? Would it be as light as the picture?

  11. @^ Neil Haggath : Lol. ūüėČ

    I’d suggest the Super –Uber-Mega-Astronomical-Telescope as being the peak of possible superlative observatory acronynms! ūüėČ

    Great picture – and clever title here, cheers BA! :-)


    PS. Wikipedia page for Messier 17 aka the Omega Nebula, Swan Nebula, Checkmark Nebula, Lobster Nebula, and the Horseshoe Nebula linked to my name here.

  12. Messier Tidy Upper

    @10. jck : January 5th, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    What would the night sky look like to someone living in that nebula? Would it be as light as the picture?

    Almost certainly not methinks.

    Why because I’m pretty sure this is a long exposure image adn this means the light literally builds up and isn’t what you’d see with the unaided eye if you were to look up from inside Messier 17 itself.

    If you were there, well the sky would certainly be different although I’m not sure exactly how different and it would also deped on exactly where you were and what else was in or near your location. (Eg. if you were in a system with other planets,comets and asteroids you’d see those – how well and as what depending on how close you were to them.)

    Very few – if any – of the familar stars in our night sky would be visible – & the stars that might be visible from there (Deneb, Rigel, Eta Carinae -the brighter & more distant cosmic lighthouses we see) would be in very different constellation patterns to ours.

    Interesting enough because this is a star forming region with young stars, I would expect you could have several really massive, hot and bright O & B type stars nearby which would shine incredibly bright in yoru M17~ean sky. Think of the light of the crescent moon or even half full moon coming from a single star-like point in your sky. Plus several stars that appear as bright as Venus and Jupiter do in our sky but unlike them remain in the same spot relative to the other stars.

    The dust and gas composing the nebula would probably obscure your view reducing the number and luminosity of the stars that were present. OTOH, you could probably pick out with the unaided eye, some of this surrounding nebulosity you are emneshed in there just as we can see the Orion nebula (Messier 42 & 43) from Earth as a “fuzzy star” in the handle of the saucepan / sword of Orion. However, given the anatomy of the human eye you probably -& I may be mistaken here but probably – couldn’t detect any colour to that nebulosity like we can in this image.

    What you may get is may dark patches – obscuring dark nebula like those EE Barnard catalogued all across your sky with grey, fuzzy misty clouds of reflection nebula that – with long exposure astrophotography would be breathtakingly magnificent and cover apapparently vast areas of sky. You may well see fewer but brighter stars and as for planets, comets and asteroids well, that would depend where youwere and what was nearby.

    So, it could be very interesting indeed and I’d love to have an FTL starship and go look. Alas we’llhave to settle for now for imagination and space art.

  13. Eddie Janssen

    Another general question:
    Which of the stars you can see in this picture are part of the nebula and which are merely foreground stars?

  14. @ ^ Eddie Janssen : You can’t really tell for sure unless you know the distance to each of them but I’d guess they are mostly or even all in the foreground with the nebulosity obscuring the light of any stars in the background behind it.

    Note too that stars may be forming at the centre of the darkest clumps – like the truncated triangle and octopus shaped black patch on the upper right hand side – but yet those stars may be completely cloaked by the dense surrounding dust and gas.

    They could well be Bok globules – click on my name for article via Universe Today or search online for ‘Journey Inside A Bok Globule’ by Tammy Plotner posted on February 2, 2009.

  15. Messier Tidy Upper

    BTW. I’d also strongly recommend checking out the voyage into a few astronomical nebulas of varying sorts here – scroll down :

    including this one :

    journeying into the star-forming region Sharpless 2-106.

    There’s also more like those such as this one :

    taking y’all into the Carina nebula “pillars” to enjoy. :-)

  16. raimolonka

    Why we never see actual borning of a new star? (First light in the previously dark spot). There are always just “young stars” or “star forming regions” etc. It would be easier to believe in these hopeful stories if one really could see a new star. Richard P. Feynman wrote that the star life cycle scenario (formation, life, death, formation…) “sounded like a perpetual motion machine” . It’s quite easy to agree with Feynman.


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