Open wide and say Awwwww

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
April 13 2010 7:13 AM

Open wide and say Awwwww

Every now and again a new picture from a space telescope comes down the pipe* that's a little bit different, a little bit of a step to the left. I think this image counts:

herschel_rosette

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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Kewwwwl. That's the Rosette Nebula as seen by the Herschel far infrared observatory. The Rosette is a huge star forming region, and one that's been around a while. In optical images its name is obvious; it resembles a huge flower in space. The central region looks empty, and that's because it mainly is: fierce winds from newborn stars have excavated a giant bubble in the center of the nebula. Acting like a snowplow, they have pushed the material from the middle of the gas cloud out to the edges, where it piles up. That's what you're seeing here; the inner wall of the nebula. This image is a long walk from the optical, though. It's false color, where blue, green, and red represent the light from the nebula at 70, 160, and 250 microns. For comparison, the reddest light your eye can see is less than one micron in wavelength, so this is way far out in the IR. The reddest light in the image is coming from dust that's only a few degrees above absolute zero!

The bright spots you see peppering the image are cocoons of gas and dust surrounding stars in the process of birth. They're not alone; see the finger-like tendrils all pointing off to the right? Those are regions of slightly denser dust which have resisted the winds from the central stars of the nebula (off the edge of this image to the right). Like sandbars forming behind rocks in a stream, these fingers indicate that the tips are denser, and are probably where stars are forming as well.

What I can't get over is how three-dimensional this image looks! It's like the mouth to Hell from Poltergeist. Well, a little bit. If the mouth were 5000 light years away, 100 light years (a quadrillion km, or 600 trillion miles!) across, and kept at a chilly -260° C.

That's a big, cold, far away mouth.

And the analogy isn't fair, anyway. In the movie, that mouth was where you went after you die, but in reality, this cavernous cloud is where life gets started. Maybe our own Sun was born in a nebula like this; some research indicates it may have been. So while this picture may look a little bit frightening, to me it's comforting. Even sweet.

After all, who can resist a nursery full of babies?

Image Credit: ESA/PACS & SPIRE Consortium/HOBYS Key Programme Consortia



*Some people say "pike" which is understandable (pike as in road) but I think "pipe" is funnier and apropos, so that's what I'm sticking with.