On a clear night, if you look peer out at the constellation Orion, you might get a glimpse of a stellar nursery. Near the tip of the Hunter's sword, lurking some 1,350 light years from Earth, the nebula looks like a mere smudge in the sky. But that hazy blob is Orion Nebula, also known as M42, which births some of the Milky Way’s newest lights.
Now, NASA and its partners have created a stunning new video of the Nebula, letting earthbound observers take a trip through one of the galaxy’s most beautiful sights—all set to Dvorak’s “Serenade for Strings in E Major.”
To create the visualization, researchers at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore and the Caltech/Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) in Pasadena, California, combined both visible light imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope and infrared data collected by the Spitzer space telescope. The video first compares the nebula in visual light and infrared light before zipping through the vibrant dusty cloud of gas that spans 24 light years across. Throughout the video, the imagery toggles between visible and infrared light, revealing different features of the cloud of gas.
Creating the video was no easy task. Space Telescope Science Institute visualization scientist Frank Summers, who led the project, and his team created special code to help visually render the tens of millions of layers of semi-transparent gas found in the nebula. They then created layers for other elements including stars, protoplanetary disks of matter, bow shocks and “the veil”—layers of gas surrounding the nebula which also has a strong magnetic field. They then combined the layers to create a 3D effect.
“The main thing is to give the viewer an experiential understanding, so that they have a way to interpret the images from telescopes,” Summers says. “It’s a really wonderful thing when they can build a mental model in their head to transform the two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional scene.”
As George Dvorsky at Gizmodo reports, making such a detailed view of the Orion Nebula isn’t just for fun, although it is a little fun. The nebula visualization is a great resource for astronomers. The star nursery, the closest we have to Earth, gives us a glimpse into the past and shows what our own cosmic neighborhood must have looked like 4.6 billion years ago. The visualization can also help researchers and students wrap their heads around the complexity of the feature.
It can also be used as teaching tool to help astronomy students and planetarium visitors really experience cosmic objects, rather than just seeing printed pictures. “Being able to fly through the nebula's tapestry in three dimensions gives people a much better sense of what the universe is really like,” says Summers. “By adding depth and structure to the amazing images, this fly-through helps elucidate the universe for the public, both educating and inspiring.”
While the visualization captures much of what we know about the Orion Nebula, our view of the gassy cloud is already changing. Just last week, NASA announced that surveying the nebula using the Hubble space telescope, researchers have uncovered 17 candidate brown dwarfs—or failed stars—orbiting red dwarf stars, one brown dwarf pair, and one brown dwarf with a planetary companion. It's the largest known population of brown dwarfs among baby stars.
They may yet find more to add to the next visualization—the technique they used to pick out the brown dwarfs could be applied to past images gathered by Hubble to tease out more detail. And when the James Webb Space Telescope becomes operational next year, who knows what interesting finds may suddenly seem to appear in the swirling clouds of gas and dust.