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article imageStartling new images of Horsehead Nebula from Herschel and Hubble

By Robert Myles     Apr 20, 2013 in Science
Obtained from the European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory and the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, spectacular new high resolution images were yesterday released of the Horsehead Nebula in the constellation Orion.
The Horsehead Nebula is easily located by amateur astronomers but the new ESA/NASA images show its colourful brilliance as never before. The Horsehead lies about 1300 light years distant from Earth and, in the sky at night as seen from Earth, it’s situated a bit to the south of the star Alnitak, the easternmost star in Orion’s easily spotted three star belt.
In the panoramic image below, the latest far-infrared Herschel view shows in never-before-seen detail, a cameo in progress on the right-hand side of the picture where the Nebula appears to be surfing like a white horse in the waves of the star forming gaseous clouds. This ‘horse’ seems to be cantering in the direction of the Flame Nebula — NGC2024. (For detail see inset photo at foot of article.)
Herschel’s view of the Horsehead Nebula in the context of its surroundings. The image is a composi...
Herschel’s view of the Horsehead Nebula in the context of its surroundings. The image is a composite of the wavelengths of 70 microns (blue), 160 microns (green) and 250 microns (red), and covers 4.5x1.5 degrees. The image is oriented with northeast towards the left of the image and southwest towards the right.
ESA/Herschel/PACS, SPIRE/N. Schneider, Ph. André, V. Könyves (CEA Saclay, France) for the “Gould
Herschel is able to ‘see’ this detail as the intense streams of radiation emanating from newly formed stars in this stellar maternity ward heat up the surrounding dust and gas clouds, making them shine in a spectacular blaze as seen by Herschel’s infrared sensitive camera-eyes.
In the same panoramic far-infrared image, away to the left can be seen two pink splurges known as NGC 2068 (or M78) and NGC 2071. Each of these has long tails of colder gas and dust streaming away. Both NGC 2068 and NGC 2071 are known as reflection nebulas since both reflect the light of nearby stars. They can be seen at visible wavelengths although they are too faint to be seen in any detail with the naked eye.
The red and yellow streaks which can be seen are streams of cool gas and dust some of which may be the birthplace of newly forming lightweight stars.
The new Hubble view (main picture) was taken at near-infrared wavelengths using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. Hubble is celebrating the 23rd anniversary of its launch and the picture was taken to mark that occasion.
After a troublesome start when Hubble was found to have a flawed mirror, causing it to return out-of-focus images, remedial action was taken to correct Hubble’s ‘eyesight’. Since these astronaut-opticians paid a visit, the Hubble telescope has never really looked back, sending back startling image after startling image as it peers into regions of space never before seen.
Over the 23 years Hubble has been operating, a number of upgrades and replacement of equipment have taken place. The Wide Field Camera 3 used in this case is a relatively recent addition, having been installed on the Hubble space telescope as recently as 2009.
Hubble’s latest imagery of the Horsehead Nebula is no less breathtaking. In the image, the upper part of the Horsehead Nebula can be seen backlit and glowing from the light of nearby stars. Very gradually, the ultra-violet radiation from these surrounding bright stars is causing the Horsehead Nebula, an incubator for newly forming stars, to evaporate. Along the upper edge of the gas and dust nebula, two newly forming stars can just be seen peeking out from the surrounding cloud.
To complement the still images, ESA/NASA have also released a new fly-through animation (featured), putting the Horsehead in context and showing the Nebula at both visible and infrared wavelengths. The animation also takes in other ground-based images from a number of terrestrial telescopes.
The Herschel image forms part of a wider study of the Orion B region of space. Further details of the results of the study can be found in the research paper “What determines the density structure of molecular clouds? A case study of Orion B with Herschel,” by N. Schneider and others, published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Diagramatic showing location of Horsehead Nebula in relation to surrounding objects
Diagramatic showing location of Horsehead Nebula in relation to surrounding objects
ESA / Herschel
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