A dragon fight in the heart of Orion

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
June 24 2011 11:49 AM

A dragon fight in the heart of Orion

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:

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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[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...

OK, first: this really is the Orion Nebula. It was taken by Hubble in 2006, and I've written about it before (go to that page and scroll down a bit).

In the picture above from reddit, part of the frame was masked to show just the dragon and the man more clearly -- I added the labels "masked region" to make it clear which part were darkened. I've included the original Hubble picture here; click it to see a hugely embiggened version. In that hi-res shot you can clearly see the dragon and the man. No kidding; they're there.

When I first saw the masked image I recognized it as Orion right away, but I have to admit I thought someone had distorted the image to make the dragon and face. Part of being a skeptic is doubt, but a bigger part is checking the facts! So when I saw both figures in the original version, my jaw literally dropped -- and I do mean literally, at least until I started laughing my head off.

What's amazing to me -- besides just how flipping cool this is -- is how the frak did I miss this all these years?! It's right there, and it's in an image of one of the most celebrated and famous objects in the entire night sky! I've observed this nebula since I was but a wee lad, and have looked at a bazillion images of it.

I guess I never noticed the dragon fight because I've never looked at the picture the right way; that is, in the right frame of mind. I remember when people were seeing the face of Jesus in a Hubble pic of the Eagle nebula; I purposely started looking for other things in the picture and saw cats, dogs, a bison, and even Abe Vigoda.

So you need to be primed to see those things. As an astronomer, when I look at Orion I see shock waves from stellar winds and flooding UV radiation, dark dust lanes, turbulence, and dense molecular clouds. But once I look at it as a dork with a juvenile sense of humor, yup, the dragon and man are obvious. And once seen, they cannot be unseen.

So I tip my helm to the good folks at reddit. Well done.



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