December 19, 2014
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Sometimes a horse of a different color hardly seems to be a horse at all, as, for example, in this newly released image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The famous Horsehead nebula makes a ghostly appearance on the far right side of the image, but is almost unrecognizable in this infrared view. In visible-light images, the nebula has a distinctively dark and dusty horse-shaped silhouette, but when viewed in infrared light, dust becomes transparent and the nebula appears as a wispy arc.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. Spacecraft operations are based at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, Littleton, Colorado. Data are archived at the Infrared Science Archive housed at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at Caltech. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.
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The Horsehead is only one small feature in the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, dominated in the center of this view by the brilliant Flame nebula (NGC 2024). The smaller, glowing cavity falling between the Flame nebula and the Horsehead is called NGC 2023. These regions are about 1,200 light-years away.
Photo taken by Rogelio Bernal Andreo in October 2010 of the Orion constellation showing the surrounding nebulas of the Orion Molecular Cloud complex. Also captured is the red supergiant Betelgeuse (top left) and the famous belt of Orion composed of the OB stars Altitak, Alnilam and Mintaka. To the bottom right can be found the star Rigel. The red crescent shape is Barnard’s Loop. The photograph appeared as the Astronomy Picture of the Day on October 23, 2010.
Stars are often born in clusters, in giant clouds of gas and dust. Astronomers have studied two star clusters using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and infrared telescopes and the results show that the simplest ideas for the birth of these clusters cannot work, as described in our latest press release. This composite image shows one of the clusters, NGC 2024, which is found in the center of the so-called Flame Nebula about 1,400 light years from Earth. In this image, X-rays from Chandra are seen as purple, while infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope are colored red, green, and blue. A study of NGC 2024 and the Orion Nebula Cluster, another region where many stars are forming, suggest that the stars on the outskirts of these clusters are older than those in the central regions. This is different from what the simplest idea of star formation predicts, where stars are born first in the center of a collapsing cloud of gas and dust when the density is large enough. The research team developed a two-step process to make this discovery. First, they used Chandra data on the brightness of the stars in X-rays to determine their masses. Next, they found out how bright these stars were in infrared light using data from Spitzer, the 2MASS telescope, and the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope.
By combining this information with theoretical models, the ages of the stars throughout the two clusters could be estimated. According to the new results, the stars at the center of NGC 2024 were about 200,000 years old while those on the outskirts were about 1.5 million years in age. In Orion, the age spread went from 1.2 million years in the middle of the cluster to nearly 2 million years for the stars toward the edges.
Explanations for the new findings can be grouped into three broad categories. The first is that star formation is continuing to occur in the inner regions. This could have happened because the gas in the outer regions of a star-forming cloud is thinner and more diffuse than in the inner regions. Over time, if the density falls below a threshold value where it can no longer collapse to form stars, star formation will cease in the outer regions, whereas stars will continue to form in the inner regions, leading to a concentration of younger stars there. Another suggestion is that old stars have had more time to drift away from the center of the cluster, or be kicked outward by interactions with other stars. Finally, the observations could be explained if young stars are formed in massive filaments of gas that fall toward the center of the cluster. The combination of X-rays from Chandra and infrared data is very powerful for studying populations of young stars in this way. With telescopes that detect visible light, many stars are obscured by dust and gas in these star-forming regions, as shown in this optical image of the region.
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.
Date 8 May 2014
The two carved-out cavities of the Flame nebula and NGC 2023 were created by the destructive glare of recently formed massive stars within their confines. They can be seen tracing a spine of glowing dust that runs through the image.
The Flame nebula sits adjacent to the star Alnitak, the westernmost star in Orion’s belt, seen here as the bright blue dot near the top of the nebula.
In this infrared image from Spitzer, blue represents light emitted at a wavelength of 3.6-microns, and cyan (blue-green) represents 4.5-microns, both of which come mainly from hot stars. Green represents 8-micron light and red represents 24-micron light. Relatively cooler objects, such as the dust of the nebulae, appear green and red. Some regions along the top and bottom of the image extending beyond Spitzer’s observations were filled in using data from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, which covered similar wavelengths across the whole sky.
The visible-light image (see inset), from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope facility, can be found online at http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso0202a/.
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Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge , on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.