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Space eye candy: Cool cosmic dust and a bright Orion nebula


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This patch of sky holds some of the youngest stars ever found. The ribbon that runs through the centre of the image is made up of dust clouds in the constellation Orion, which holds one of the busiest nearby stellar nurseries.

The composite image includes both infrared light at wavelengths too long for the human eye to see (the dust clouds, shown in red/orange) and visible light. Spied by the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), which is operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile, the dust clouds are just a few tens of degrees above absolute zero. But that’s enough heat for the telescope to ‘see’ them. APEX’s image of the dust clouds is layered over an image of the area in visible light.

What you can see on the image is actually just a small part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, which ESO describes as “a rich melting pot of bright nebulae, hot young stars and cold dust clouds” around 1350 light years away from us. The bright spot at the top of the image is the famous Orion Nebula, an extremely busy stellar nursery. (If you want to know what it would be like to fly through the Orion Nebula, take a look at this clip from the IMAX film Hubble 3D.)

Speaking of space images, have you seen this tool from ESA scientist Bruno Merin? It lets you see what the same astronomical object would look like to the human eye (if we had super amazing magnification skills), and what it looks like to an infrared telescope. The best bit is that you can blend the two and really start to understand how composite astronomical images work.

Image: An APEX view of star formation in the Orion Nebula. Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2

Kelly Oakes About the Author: Kelly Oakes has a master's in science communication and a physics degree, both from Imperial College London. Now she spends her days writing about science. Follow on Twitter @kahoakes.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. verdai 2:10 pm 05/21/2013

    do these colors approximate reality?
    red, and brown, with blue, maybe white to the side.

    Link to this

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