Cosmic photo album: Somewhere out there

  • Cosmic wreckage: The Pencil Nebula
  • Sugar, baby: Rho Ophiuchi star-forming region
  • Nebula for the birds: Seagull Nebula
  • Getting together: 30 Doradus Nebula
Date:17 January 2013 Tags:, , ,

Just in case you had begun to suspect that we humans were important, or been tempted to regard our planet as rather special in the cosmic scheme of things, we thought we’d publish a photo feature that offers a little perspective.

Cosmic wreckage

A cloud of glowing gas called the Pencil Nebula, shown in this image from ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, forms part of a huge ring of wreckage left over after a supernova explosion that occurred about 11 000 years ago. The Pencil Nebula, which measures about 0,75 light-years across and is moving through the interstellar medium at about 650 000 kilometres an hour, is the brightest part of this huge shell. Initially, the shock wave moved at millions of kilometres per hour, but as it expanded through space, it ploughed through the gas between the stars, which slowed it considerably and created strangely shaped folds of nebulosity.

Despite the tranquil and apparently unchanging beauty of a starry night, the Universe is far from being a quiet place. Stars are being born and dying in an endless cycle, and sometimes the death of a star can create a vista of unequalled beauty as material is blasted out into space to form strange structures in the sky.

Sugar, baby

A team of astronomers has found molecules of glycolaldehyde – a simple form of sugar – in the gas surrounding a young binary star with similar mass to the Sun, called IRAS 16293-2422. This is the first time sugar been found in space around such a star, and the discovery shows that the building blocks of life are in the right place, at the right time, to be included in planets forming around the star. The astronomers used the European Southern Observatory‘s Atacama Large Millimetre/sub-millimetre Array (ALMA) to detect the molecules.

This image shows the Rho Ophiuchi star-forming region in infrared light, as seen by Nasa’s Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE). IRAS 16293-2422 is the red object in the centre of the small square. The inset image is an artist’s impression of glycolaldehyde molecules, showing glycolaldehyde’s molecular structure (C2H4O2). Carbon atoms are shown as grey, oxygen atoms as red, and hydrogen atoms as white.

Nebula for the birds

This new image from ESO’s La Silla Observatory shows part of a stellar nursery nicknamed the Seagull Nebula. Officially known as Sharpless 2-292, the cloud of gas seems to form the head of a seagull and glows brightly due to the energetic radiation from a very hot young star lurking at its heart. The detailed view was produced by the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope.

Nebulae are among the most visually impressive objects in the night sky. They are interstellar clouds of dust, molecules, hydrogen, helium and other ionised gases where new stars are being born. They come in many different shapes and colours, their odd and evocative shapes triggering astronomers’ imagination and leading to curious names.

Getting together

Astronomers using data from Nasa’s Hubble Space Telescope have caught two clusters full of massive stars that may be in the early stages of merging. The 30 Doradus Nebula is 170 000 light-years from Earth. What at first was thought to be only one cluster in the core of the massive star-forming region 30 Doradus has been found to be a composite of two clusters that differ in age by about one million years.

The entire 30 Doradus complex has been an active star-forming region for 25 million years, and astronomers don’t know how much longer this region can continue creating new stars. Smaller systems that merge into larger ones could help to explain the origin of some of the largest known star clusters. The blue colour is light from the hottest, most massive stars; the green from the glow of oxygen; and the red from fluorescing hydrogen.

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