Astronomers and visualization experts from NASA’s Universe of Learning have combined visible and infrared vision of the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes to create an unprecedented, 3-dimensional, fly-through view of the picturesque Orion Nebula. The glowing gaseous landscape has been illuminated and carved by the high energy radiation and strong stellar
winds from the massive hot stars in the central cluster.
Believed to be the cosmic fire of creation by the Maya of Mesoamerica, M42 blazes brightly in the constellation Orion. Popularly called the Orion Nebula, this stellar nursery is only 1,500 light-years away, making it the closest large star-forming region to Earth and giving it a relatively bright apparent magnitude of 4. Due to its brightness and prominent location just below Orion’s belt, M42 can be spotted with the naked eye, while offering an excellent peek at stellar birth for those with telescopes.
The Mayan culture’s likening of the Orion Nebula to a cosmic fire of creation is very apt. The nebula is an enormous cloud of dust and gas where vast numbers of new stars are being forged. Its bright, central region is the home of four massive, young stars that shape the nebula. The four hefty stars are called the Trapezium because they are arranged in a trapezoidal pattern. Ultraviolet light unleashed by these stars is carving a cavity in the nebula and disrupting the growth of hundreds of smaller stars.
The Hubble Space Telescope begins by flying through a layer of gas above the nebula, called the “veil”. The descent to the gaseous surface provides an overview of the structure of the region as the winds and radiation from the central cluster have carved out a long “valley” in the cloud. The massive bright stars are responsible for heating the gas to temperatures at which it glows. Their strong stellar winds also blow back the gas around nearby newly formed stars creating tadpole-shaped structures. Within these objects, called proplyds, planets may be forming inside dark, dusty disks encircling the stars. These young stars can also emit jets of radiation which, in turn,
create wispy bow shocks throughout the region.