Star birth in the Scorpion

By Phil Plait | August 17, 2012 7:00 am

We live in the outskirts of our disk-shaped galaxy, our Sun and planets located about halfway from the center to the edge. This is a bit like living a few kilometers away from a city, in the suburbs. From that distance, when you look toward the city, you see more buildings, more activity, just more stuff going on.

The same thing is true for us on Earth: the center of the galaxy (downtown) is located toward the constellations of Sagittarius and Scorpius, so when we look in that direction there’s lots of fun things to see: more stars, more gas and dust, more clusters, more stellar nurseries.

And when you point the monster Very Large Telescopes ginormous 8 meter mirror in that direction you can see amazing details in that buzzing hubbub, like this lovely shot of the nebula NGC 6357:

[Click to ennebulanate, or grab the 3760 x 1560 pixel version. note: I rotated the image to make it fit the blog better and so you can see it more properly embiggened here.]

This piece is actually part of a much larger complex of gas and dust, but shows some nice features. The whole place is lousy with hydrogen gas, glowing rosy red due to energy pumped into it from young, massive, hot stars. Those stars are forming from that very gas, so they’re lighting up their own nursery. Running right through the middle is a river of interstellar dust – not like the dust bunnies under your bed, this is actually more like soot, and made up of complex clumps of organic molecules. This dust absorbs and blocks light behind it, so it looks like it’s splitting the gas cloud in half.

You can also see some structures in the dust, like the "fingers" of material at the top pointing to the center of the gas. Those are actually dense clumps of material being slowly blasted away by the fierce, intense ultraviolet light from newborn stars. Think of them like sandbars in a river getting eaten away by the current. They point right at the stars doing the deed, a cosmic "j’accuse!"

Nebulae like this are among my favorite objects in the sky. They’re beautiful, they’re fascinating, and it’s more than a little mind-blowing to know that there are dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of stars being born in these objects even as we watch. And it also gives me a bit of a shiver to know that these objects are ephemeral, too: the stars being born really are slowly eating away at the material… and many of these stars will explode as supernovae someday, and that destruction won’t be slow anymore! The onslaught of high-energy radiation and material moving outwards from those stellar blasts at thousands of kilometers per second will make short work of this nebula. So take a look while you can. In a million years or four, this whole thing will be gone.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (6)

  1. New desktop background! And the science behind the image makes it even cooler.

  2. Brian

    a cosmic “j’accuse!

    Nice image.

  3. Infinite123Lifer

    I still have Mars on my desktop but I was just blown away by my own pareidolia scrolling through this. Kinda wish I could just not view faces in there . . . dang blasted evolutionarily created human instincts! Leave me be! jk

    Last night 200 miles from where I sit some very cool folks produced the worst telescope I have ever seen in a box and they asked me to assembled it. Happily and exactingly I did my best to assemble this . . . thing of beauty out in the woods for a gaggle of kids and when I bent in (gotta make sure the shortest one can see) and focused the telescope in on what I suspected was a planet among the Milky Way I achieved clarity rather shortly and a shooting star just flies across my preciously focused circle of light for 2-3 seconds and I said “I just saw a shooting star! In the telescope! That was amazing! Your next, go!” I was blown away. I was wrong to call it the “worst telescope I have ever seen”. Any telescope can be a good telescope or even a fantastic one of a kind priceless telescope on the right day :)

    8 meters? Skilled operators? Skilled interpreters? Fantastic

    It is more than just humbling to learn about the barred spiral we ride. Downtown in the realm of the nebula we can see. Outstanding.

  4. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    In a million years or four, this whole thing will be gone.

    *Tsk* There goes the neighbourhood.

  5. Nigel Depledge


    The BA said:

    . . . when you point the monster Very Large Telescopes ginormous 8 meter mirror in that direction . . .

    Missing apostrophe in Telescopes.


  6. Nigel Depledge

    Oh, and : Whoa!

    What an amazing image.


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