Desktop Project Part 2: Unicorn, rainbow… soot?

By Phil Plait | March 27, 2012 7:00 am

[Over the past few weeks, I've collected a metric ton of cool pictures to post, but somehow have never gotten around to actually posting them. Sometimes I was too busy, sometimes too lazy, sometimes they just fell by the wayside... but I decided my computer's desktop was getting cluttered, and I'll never clean it up without some sort of incentive. I've therefore made a pact with myself to post one of the pictures with an abbreviated description every day until they're gone, thus cleaning up my desktop, showing you neat and/or beautiful pictures, and making me feel better about my work habits. Enjoy.]

Did you know there’s a unicorn in the sky? There is: the constellation Monoceros (literally, one-horn). Located near Orion, when we look in that direction we’re peering into the disk of our Milky Way galaxy, and that means seeing lots of gas and dust. And when you do that with a telescope like WISE that sees into the far-infared, what you get is, well, magic:

This is SH2-284, a star forming nebula. The image is false color, but each hue represents a different part of the infrared spectrum. Blue and teal is mostly coming from stars, while red and yellow is dust. Green comes from a very specific kind of material called a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — long-chain carbon molecules which are essentially soot. PAHs are made in various ways, but are abundant where stars are being born, and that’s what we’re seeing here.

There’s a cluster of young stars in the center of this cloud, and they’re so hot they’re eating out the inside of the cloud, creating that cavity you can see. Like so many of these structures, the clock is ticking: many of those stars will explode, and when they do they’ll tear the cloud apart. So take a look while you can… this unicorn rainbow cloud only has a few million years left before it’s extinct.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team


Related Posts:

- Rudolph the red-dusted Strömgren sphere
- Orion’s WISE head
- An ionized rose would smell as sweet
- A giraffe’s shocking neck

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (15)

  1. Michelle

    Dust is so awesome. Wooo!

  2. Did you know there’s a unicorn in the sky? There is: the constellation Monoceros

    Yep indeed – and with much light pollution eg. from suburban skies its pretty much invisible too! All it needs is to have a pink~ish nebulosity surrounding it .. & you have the celestial iconic invisible pink unicorn of atheist mythology! ;-)

    (Click on my name here for Wikilink.)

    On a more serious note, Monoceros also famously contains the Rosette nebula (& there’s our pink nebulosity albeit long exposure astrophotography required!) with the bright star cluster at its heart and three very notable stars – Beta Monocerotis which is one of the finest multiples in the sky – a superb triple star system, one of our Galaxie’s highest mass stellar pairings collectively known as Plaskett’s Star and the remarkable light echo strange variable supergiant V838 Monocerotis.

  3. ScienceBulldog

    Awesome image, though technically not far-infrared. Wise goes up to about 22 microns which is considered the mid-infrared. Satellites like Herschel that start around 50-60 microns is really considered far-infrared. Also interesting (since a previous comment mentioned light pollution) is that the mid-infrared is not affected by light pollution. You can observe perfectly fine under the full moon or even during the day when the sun is up provided you can guide on a star.

  4. ScienceBulldog

    Awesome image, though technically not far-infrared. Wise goes up to about 22 microns which is considered the mid-infrared. Satellites like Herschel that start around 50-60 microns is really considered far-infrared. Also interesting (since a previous comment mentioned light pollution) is that the mid-infrared is not affected by light pollution. You can observe perfectly fine under the full moon or even during the day when the sun is up provided you can guide on a star.

  5. Quatguy

    Hi Phil;

    As you are an American, I will forgive you, but just so you know, a metric “ton” is spelled “tonne”.

    Amazing pic!

  6. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    Green comes from a very specific kind of material called a polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — long-chain carbon molecules which are essentially soot

    This does not read quite right.

    Are they hydrocarbons or are they carbon?

    As I understand it, PAHs come in a variety of forms, of which the largest are so carbon-rich that they are rather like soot or graphite. But smaller PAHs are more like heavy oil – or, in some cases, colourless solids – than soot.

  7. Nigel Depledge

    Heh. According to the wikipedia page here
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polycyclic_aromatic_hydrocarbon

    PAHs are a major component of soot.

  8. Peter Davey

    In pre-revolutionary Chinese mythology, the unicorn was regarded as a symbol of wisdom. Quite appropriate for scientists and their achievements.

  9. Unicorn, or goat with explosive flatulence?

    Seriously….the red star in the lower left of the nebula is his eye, and on the opposite end…

  10. bouch

    I don’t see a unicorn, I see an anglerfish…

    http://nature.ca/explore/di-ef/dsfe-3_e.cfm

  11. Kaler’s photographic starmap of Monoceros can be found here :

    http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/mon-t.html

    Whilst the nearly invisible unicorn constellation’s wiki-page is located here :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monoceros

    with links from there to other objects within that faint but rich constellation including, I’ve just discovered, COROT-7b the erstwhile lowest mass / diamtere exoplanetary record holder and hot super-Mercury / super-Venus / Rock Giant.

    Additionally APOD has this :

    http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap070214.html

    image among quite a few others of the Rosette nebula in case folks are interested in checking these out. :-)

  12. It’s a dim constellation completely surrounded by bright, spectacular ones, right in the interior of the brilliant Winter Hexagon. It’s enough to give a constellation an inferiority complex. It likes to hang out with Circinus and Vulpecula and complain.

  13. Ever since Craig Ferguson, all nebulae look like one thing to me.

  14. @12. Matt McIrvin : OTOH, at least those are all brighter and better placed than Mensa! ;-)

    Although I guess the skies faintest constellation can at least boast hosting part of the Large Magellanic Cloud. (Click on my name here for mensa’s wiki-page.)

  15. Eric

    PCAs always remind me of this wonderful line:

    “bacon was smoldering on the range, filling the house with gas-phase polycyclic aromatics-my favorite carcinogen by a long shot”

    http://soquoted.blogspot.com/2006/04/neal-stephenson-zodiac.html

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