Ceci *est* une pipe

By Phil Plait | September 20, 2012 7:00 am

Oh, have I got a treat for you today. Behold the brain-busting beauty of Barnard 59!

[Click to ennicotianatabacumenate – and seriously, do it! – or stick the gargantuan 16,000 x 15,000 pixel version (!!) into your pipe and smoke it.]

This incredible picture was taken by the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. The chunk of sky shown in this image is pretty big for a deep sky photo – about 6 arcminutes on a side. For comparison, the Moon is about 30 arcminutes across, so we’re still talking just a teeny region. But look at all those stars!

Of course, it’s not the stars that draw your attention: it’s the not stars. This region of the sky, in the constellation Ophiuchus, is toward the center of the galaxy, and is lousy with gas and dust – the latter of which is actually composed of complex chains of molecules. These form grains astronomers call dust, though they’re not like the bunnies you find under your dresser: these are more like particles of smoke in size. Ethereally thin by earthly standards, they form clouds that are still so large, light years across, that they are effectively opaque. They block the light coming from stars behind them, so in rich star fields like this one the dust clouds are made visible by their silhouettes.

What you’re seeing here is one particular complex of dust in the much larger cloud called the Pipe Nebula. The picture inset here shows the whole thing, and the reason for the name is obvious. Barnard 59, seen in incredible detail above, is the mouthpiece of the pipe.

You really need to take a look at at least the medium resolution image. You can see tendrils, wisps, and many other features. One of the neat things that you might miss at first is how the dark clouds change the colors of stars behind them. Start in the center of the cloud, then look near the edge, where the cloud starts to thin out, and you can see stars once again. See how the stars along the edge are redder than the stars farther out? Dust scatters blue light – a blue photon sent straight at us by a star can hit a dust grain and be sent off in another direction, missing us. There’s enough dust at the edge of the cloud to do that.

But toward the center of the cloud we’re through a lot more of that floating junk, so much that it absorbs the light coming from behind it. This effect is called interstellar extinction, and it’s kind of a pain when you’re trying to look at stuff through a cloud. However, it does make for a very pretty effect in pictures like this.

One more thing. See those fuzzy stars in the center of the cloud? Those are stars being born right before your eyes! These clouds can have very dense, cold clumps of material which can collapse to form stars. Usually invisible to optical telescopes – these ones are on the near side of the dust cloud, which is why we can see them at all – they glow brightly in infrared, and telescopes that can see out past the visible part of the spectrum see these very clearly. And yeah, you really want to click that link. It’s eerie and beautiful and spectacular.

All of this is another reason I love astronomy. One person’s meat is another person’s poison. If you want to study stars, dark nebulae are a pain. But if you want to study how stars form, they’re the first place you want to look!

Image credit: ESO; ESO/Yuri Beletsky

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures, Top Post

Comments (17)

  1. Nigel Depledge

    The BA said:

    But look at all those stars!

    My FSM, it’s full of stars . . .

    Oh. Right.

  2. Colin Bisset

    Great photo. To the left, just under the cloud as it fades out, there is a cluster of five blue rings. One of them appears broken (interceding star?), and another appears edge-on. Artefact or real? If real, what?

  3. I usually get the in-jokes around here, but I can’t figure out “ennicotianatabacumenate” — can anyone give me a clue?

  4. Arthur Maruyama

    @ Joshua Zucker:

    Nicotiana tabacum is the scientific name for the plant from which we harvest tobacco.

    The whole dust cloud collection is also known as the Pipe Nebula (as seen in the smaller picture), being a smoking pipe as opposed to a plumbing pipe.

  5. Brian

    These form grains astronomers call dust, though they’re not like the bunnies you find under your dresser: these are more like particles of smoke in size.

    Pipe smoke, in particular. Clearly, the Pipe Nebula is in the middle of the galaxy’s smoking section. Which is why we’re located out here, where the vacuum is cleaner.

  6. Carey

    I was listening to some news report yesterday – silly me, I forget what it was about entirely – and they mentioned polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAH. “Soot!” I exclaimed. “That’s soot! The Bad Astronomer told me so!”

    The guy in the car next to me was not impressed.

  7. Dear Phil:
    I am so disappointed at the disrespectful morons who continue to ruin this wonderful site/sights for the the rest of us and our younger children who are deeply interested to view and conceptualize about what our future astronomical telescopy might hold, in paticular because the Nay-sayers pay no mind to the fact that most of what we are looking at is only happenly recently in Space/Time compared to the age of thwe Universe.
    SOOOO? Morons please leave this site and take your pea sized brains elsewhere and leave us and young impressionable minds alone to peruse the available info without your negative B.S.
    Thank you Phil for continuing your great work despite these ignorant morons, it’s enough to cause some of us to rethink free speech things.

  8. Matt B.

    Non, ceci n’est pas une pipe. Mais c’est une neige de fume.

  9. Mark Doyle

    Hey, this is probably a stupid question, but what exactly IS Barnard 59? Is it one particular patch of the Pipe Nebula? Or is it one of the big blue stars? I’ve read over the article a few times and I’m still not sure. Either way, beautiful picture!

  10. Phil

    I’m curious to know what Gmhan is talking about… Deleted comment? Anyone?

  11. John

    At first I thought it was some sort of Olympics joke, but Colin Bisset is right about the blue rings. They’re in that pretty area of red and blue above the two bright blue stars and just below the cloud. One looks like a straight blue line. I think the shade of blue is a clue that they’re probably artifacts; if you scan the image, you find that the stars are all a lighter blue, but the rings–and a few stray pixels here and there throughout the image–are a darker blue. On the other hand, I am not an astronomer. Anyone have any insight?

  12. Stephan

    John you dismiss the blue rings as artifacts, because of their shade of blue. I don’t think that is enough of an explanation. These are the ends of wormholes. The blue shine is from the cherkov-radiation. Hm. Ok, not very convincing. Please somebody make up a more plausible explanation for the rings.

  13. Bob


    Me thinks Gmhan has gone through a temporal something or other, as I was wondering the same thing myself. Perhaps The Shadow knows …

  14. Teacher Al

    Matt B. a dit:
    Non, ceci n’est pas une pipe. Mais c’est une neige de fume.

    Non, ceci n’est pas une neige de fume. Ceci est une photo d’une neige de fume. Et, je ne suis pas un troll. ;{)

  15. Joe

    Those blue images are not artifacts. They are the leading elements of the Protector colonization fleet. The blue light is due to the nearlightspeed velocity of the hydrogen ramjet powered vessels.

  16. Jon Hanford

    “Hey, this is probably a stupid question, but what exactly IS Barnard 59?”

    Barnard 59 is the dark nebulosity seen in the image. B 59 is a dark nebula, forming part of the larger (dark) Pipe Nebula, first described by Edward Barnard in his “Photographic Atlas of Selected Regions of the Milky Way”: http://www.library.gatech.edu/search/digital_collections/barnard/intro.html

    Plate 18 of his atlas is centered on B 59, and Barnard refers to it in his notes as the”sink hole”: http://www.library.gatech.edu/Barnard_Project_W/PDF/plate18.pdf

    Also the blue “streaks” noted by some are actually asteroid trails. The ESO press release notes that over a dozen asteroid trails are visible in the image (see larger images for best detail), which lies near the ecliptic.

  17. Parktire

    What ever it is, it is. Don’t explain, just enjoy,turn your mind loose and see, not with your eyes, but with your soul and heart and mind.


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