From My Driveway To Orion, Nature Works Wonders

Snow partially fills in the spaces between the wires of a chain link fence Sunday morning. Photo: Bob King

Snow – especially the 22 inches of it that’s fallen in the past few days – has remade our world. Trees, roads, homes, even my dog are clad in fluffy white. While it makes for extra work to clear, most of us marvel at the sheer beauty of the transformation. Nature can change a landscape overnight. It can also remake a chaotic mess of hydrogen gas and dust into a brand new generation of stars.

The Orion Nebula, located about 1,500 light years from Earth, is home to hundreds of newborn stars created when clumps of gas and dust contract under the force of gravity. Credit: NASA/ESA

The Orion Nebula, located just below Orion’s famous three belt stars, is a turbulent place. Just look at photographs, or if you’ve got a telescope, see for yourself. Swirls of glowing gas snake around fresh-faced stars while clumps of nebulosity look like clouds on the move.

Buried within the nebula’s foggy folds are hundreds of newborn stars, only a handful of which are old enough to have blown away their dusty birth cocoons and show as brilliant, blue-white beacons in a typical telescope.

Enter NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s Herschel Mission. The two orbiting observatories gaze at the universe through infrared-sensitive eyes.  Infrared light lies just beyond the red end of the rainbow spectrum. Though invisible to our eyes, we sense it as heat. Because infrared can penetrate dust and gas with relative ease, Spitzer and Herschel can see inside Orion’s clouds and spy stars in the earliest stages of firing up as feisty newborns.

This new view of the Orion nebula highlights embryonic stars hidden in the gas and clouds. It was taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope and Europe's Herschel mission. A star forms when a clump of this gas and dust collapses, creating a warm glob of material fed by an encircling disk. The red dots are the glowing globs. Credit: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/IRAM

Spitzer sees shorter wavelengths of infrared light (closer to the color red) and Herschel sees longer. By combining the two, scientists created this beautiful image of glowing cores of warm, contracting gases that in a several hundred thousand years will be hot enough to initiate nuclear fusion and blaze as true stars. This is how it all gets started. From dark clouds, light is born.

Not only do we see the earliest beginnings of stardom happening in Orion, but these hatchlings are changing right before our eyes, rapidly heating up and cooling down. Some of them vary in their brightness by up to 20 percent in a matter of weeks.

Two views of the heart of the Orion Nebula centered on the four bright stars called the Trapezium. The visible light view at left shows lots of gas and only a few stars. The infrared view penetrates the dust to reveal hundreds of newborn stars clustering around the Trapezium. Credit: NASA/ESA

One possibility for the rapid changes might be that “lumpy filaments of gas funnel from the outer to the central regions of the star, temporarily warming the object as the clumps hit its inner disk. Or, it could be that material occasionally piles up at the inner edge of the disk and casts a shadow on the outer disk,” according to scientists involved in the study.

Humans of the distant future will have the privilege of looking Orion-ward to see a brilliant star cluster swathed in a few remaining tendrils of dust – a landscape as radically  transformed as the one outside my window today.

8 Responses

  1. Lynn

    Hi Bob, thats a shame your having all that snow just now, but here in Scotland we have had lovely sunshine all afternoon, and around half 5 this evening I saw what looked like a star in the sky but it was moving quite slowly and then disappeared, do you think it was just a plane and looked like a star due to the light from the sun hitting off it, also last summer which I know was a long time ago, I saw a light coming from the right of me and it slowly moved across the sky this just looked like a star moving in front of me, a few nights later the same thing happened again and I showed my partner but he didn’t know either, I know it was a while ago and I couldn’t ask you back then as I just found you when I looked up the comet elenin scare everyone had, do you think it was the space station I seen. Thanks Bob 🙂

    1. astrobob

      Hi Lynn,
      Yes, it very well could have been a plane reflecting the sun. A good guess. The others sound like satellites, because they look just like a star on the move.

  2. Lynn

    Thanks Bob, and I’m amazed that i’ve seen satellites moving across the sky thats the first I have ever seen amazing 🙂

    1. astrobob

      Glad to hear it. I’m sure you’ll continue to see more amazing things by looking up, something many people don’t think to do.

  3. Lynn

    Sorry Bob me again, I just read in my local paper about a meteor last night and it says it travelled from northern Scotland to Southern England is this possible I didn’t think a meteor travelled that far, and a local astronomer said that it came from the asteroid belt between mars and jupiter, it seems they have been coming from there regularly recently especially February month, is this common Bob, thanks again.

    1. astrobob

      Hi Lynn,
      No problem. Feel free to ask. Yes, it’s entirely possible and it’s happened many times before. Meteors are moving at many miles per second. Depending upon their angle of descent, they can track over hundreds of miles before burning up and going dark.

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