The festive season has arrived for astronomers at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in the form of this dramatic new image. It shows the swirling gas around the region known as NGC 2264 — an area of sky that includes the sparkling blue baubles of the Christmas Tree star cluster.
NGC 2264 lies about 2600 light-years from Earth in the obscure constellation of Monoceros, the Unicorn, not far from the more familiar figure of Orion, the Hunter. The image shows a region of space about 30 light-years across.
William Herschel discovered this fascinating object during his great sky surveys in the late 18th century. He first noticed the bright cluster in January 1784 and the brightest part of the visually more elusive smudge of the glowing gas clouds at Christmas nearly two years later. The cluster is very bright and can easily be seen with binoculars. With a small telescope (whose lenses will turn the view upside down) the stars resemble the glittering lights on a Christmas tree. The dazzling star at the top is even bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye. It is a massive multiple star system that only emerged from the dust and gas a few million years ago.
CLICK IMAGE ABOVE FOR FULL SIZE. This color image of the region known as NGC 2264 — an area of sky that includes the sparkling blue baubles of the Christmas Tree star cluster — was created from data taken through four different filters (B, V, R and H-alpha) with the Wide Field Imager at ESO's La Silla Observatory, 2400 m high in the Atacama Desert of Chile in the foothills of the Andes. The image shows a region of space about 30 light-years across. Credit: ESO
As well as the cluster there are many interesting and curious structures in the gas and dust. At the bottom of the frame, the dark triangular feature is the evocative Cone Nebula, a region of molecular gas flooded by the harsh light of the brightest cluster members. The region to the right of the brightest star has a curious, fur-like texture that has led to the name Fox Fur Nebula.
Much of the image appears red because the huge gas clouds are glowing under the intense ultra-violet light coming from the energetic hot young stars. The stars themselves appear blue as they are hotter, younger and more massive than our own Sun. Some of this blue light is scattered by dust, as can be seen occurring in the upper part of the image.
This intriguing region is an ideal laboratory for studying how stars form. The entire area shown here is just a small part of a vast cloud of molecular gas that is in the process of forming the next generation of stars. Besides the feast of objects in this picture there are many interesting objects hidden behind the murk of the nebulosity. In the region between the tip of the Cone Nebula and the brightest star at the top of the picture there are several stellar birthing grounds where young stars are forming. There is even evidence of the intense stellar winds from these youthful embryos blasting out from the hidden stars in the making.
This picture of NGC 2264, including the Christmas Tree Cluster, was created from images taken with the Wide Field Imager (WFI), a specialised astronomical camera attached to the 2.2-metre Max-Planck Society/ESO telescope at the La Silla observatory in Chile. Located nearly 2400 m above sea level, in the mountains of the Atacama Desert, ESO's La Silla enjoys some of the clearest and darkest skies on the whole planet, making the site ideally suited for studying the farthest depths of the Universe. To make this image, the WFI stared at the cluster for more than ten hours through a series of specialist filters to build up a full colour image of the billowing clouds of fluorescing hydrogen gas.
- PHYSICAL SCIENCES
- EARTH SCIENCES
- LIFE SCIENCES
- SOCIAL SCIENCES
Subscribe to the newsletter
Stay in touch with the scientific world!
Know Science And Want To Write?
- Why An Extra Planet Can't Be Hidden Behind The Sun Or Above The South Pole
- Lichen: Apparently Happy Couple Really A Threesome
- The Daily Physics Problem - 2
- People Estimate Their Own Abilities Based On Others' Performance
- US Could Feed Twice As Many People - If Only Elites Eat Meat
- The Daily Physics Problem - 1
- Hugh Hefner's Wife Was Not Poisoned By Breast Implants
- "You sir havent got a leg to stand on and should be ashamed of yourself you no its real deep down..."
- "Your information sir is well out of date do you think people have not seen this information before..."
- "Thank you for your long article. I did not read it all because it was too long. But I'm not sure..."
- "Sorry, Tommaso, but the kind of problems ...Consider all thinkable physics- and detector-related..."
- "Dear, sir you are obviously furiously trying to get your book out before you are branded a fraud..."
- Unusual new zoantharian species is the first described solitary species in over 100 years
- Scientists develop painless and inexpensive microneedle system to monitor drugs
- Parasite proteins prompt immune system to fight off ovarian tumors in mice
- Behavioral activation as effective as CBT for depression, at lower cost
- The Lancet: Simpler, cheaper psychological treatment as effective as cognitive behavioural therapy for treating depression