Red Lagoon

The entire universe in blog form
April 22 2010 7:40 AM

Red Lagoon

When I was a kid, I used to haul my 25 cm 'scope out to the end of the driveway every clear night to observe. In the summer, one of my favorite targets was the Lagoon Nebula: it's bright, easy to find, and even with the frakkin' streetlight I had to peer past, details in the vast gas cloud were easy to spot.

But I kinda wish I had access to a 1.5 meter telescope. Their view is a wee bit better:

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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Wow! Click to embiggen, or grab yourself a ginormous 2000x2000 pixel image if your current desktop is boring. Compared to this, I bet it is. This image of the Lagoon was taken using the European Southern Observatory 1.5 meter Danish telescope in La Silla, Chile. It's actually kinda sorta true color, using filters that mimic the sensitivity of the human eye.

If you could find a nice dark spot away from city lights, the Lagoon is actually bright enough to spot with your unaided eye, which is quite a feat considering it's 40 quadrillion kilometers away -- that's 40,000,000,000,000,000 if you like your zeroes. Even from moderately light-polluted skies it's easy in binoculars.

The Lagoon is one of those giant star-forming regions I've written so much about. And it's big: a hundred light years across, and busily forming lots and lots of stars.

A wider view of it shows why it's such a great target for small telescopes. It's bright, colorful, and has lots of cool swirls and shock waves that accentuate its shape. It's also located between us and the center of the galaxy -- think of it like being towards downtown of a big city when you live in the suburbs -- so that whole area of the sky is lousy with gorgeous, interesting things to see.

That also makes these objects great targets for large telescopes, because then we can see all kinds of incredible details. The more of these we study, the better we understand the environment where stars are born, including the Sun. There's lots of science here... but when I look at images like this, I can't help but think of that poor dorky teenager (me!) struggling mightily to get that giant, heavy telescope positioned just right so he could see a few wisps of gas gazillions of kilometers away.

All I can do is mentally smile and give him a virtual decades-later pat on the back. Keep at it, kid. It'll pay off. I promise.

Image credit: ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/ R. Gendler, U.G. Jørgensen, K. Harpsøe

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