It’s very common to see familiar things in random patterns. We see faces in clouds, Jesus in a tortilla, and smiley faces everywhere. It’s so ubiquitous there’s a term for it: pareidolia.
So when I saw on reddit that people were talking about seeing an epic dragon fight in the Orion Nebula, I smiled. But then I saw the image, and that smile turned to pure amazement. Why? Because here’s the image:
[Click to ensmaugenate.]
Do you see the dragon on the left, wings outstretched, breathing fire, blasting it at the man on the right? He has a face, and I see his shoulder, back, and outstretched arm as well, as if he’s battling the dragon.
Let me be clear: this picture is real! Well, the dragon and face aren’t real — they’re more pareidolia — but the images in the nebula are actually there. You might see them more easily in this contrast-enhanced version, too.
Let me explain…
[Yes, that title is correct. Bear with me.]
I’ve seen the Orion Nebula approximately… well, how many times? Let’s see… um, carry the two… yeah, a gazillion times. You have too, probably, since to the unaided eye it appears as a star in the dagger hanging below Orion’s famous belt*. I’ve also seen it with binoculars and through telescopes ranging in size from dimestore junkers to a one-meter on a mountaintop. And yet, every new picture of it reveals something interesting… like this spectacular shot does:
First, some stats: this picture is a combination of five separate images from the red to the ultraviolet (that last colored violet, actually), including a filter that sees just the glow from warm hydrogen (colored red in this image). The telescope used was a 2.2 meter in Chile. The nebula is pretty big — the full Moon would just fit inside this image — so the detail on this is truly stunning.
The nebula is a vast cloud of gas, both atomic and molecular, and dust located about 1350 light years away. It’s one of the largest star forming factories in the Milky Way, and what you see here is well over 20 light years across.
For years I figured it was just a diffuse glowing thing in space, but it turns out to be more complicated than that. Read More