Stellar nursery is a cliffhanger

Lagoon Nebula's 'Southern Cliff'

The Lagoon Nebula is a glorious cloudscape of dust and gas surrounding a nursery of intermediate- and low-mass stars. This image shows just a small part of it, a region called the 'Southern Cliff'.

  • Lagoon Nebula is a nursery of intermediate- and low-mass stars
  • Located somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 light-years from Earth
  • This image shows the region known as the ‘Southern Cliff’

AN ALL-TIME FAVOURITE OF SKYWATCHERS, the Lagoon Nebula (Messier 8 or M8) is among the most striking examples of a ‘stellar nursery’ in our neighbourhood of the Milky Way galaxy. Visible through small telescopes and binoculars its fuzzy glow reveals the type of chaotic environment where new stars are born.

Argentinean astronomers Julia Arias (Universidad de La Serena) and Rodolfo Barbá (Universidad de La Serena and ICATE-CONICET) used the Gemini South telescope in Chile to obtain a dramatic new image of the Lagoon.

Actually, since M8 is located some 5,000 light-years away, the multi-hued scene is a “flashback”…as its photons had to travel through space for that same number of years before they reached Gemini South’s gigantic 8-metre mirror.

The picture reveals a glorious cloudscape of dust and gas surrounding a nursery of intermediate- and low-mass stars.

The image above shows only part of the Lagoon…a region astronomers sometimes call the ‘Southern Cliff’ because it resembles a sharp drop-off. Beyond the “cliff,” light from a spattering of young background stars in the upper left of the image shines through the cloudscape.

The full Lagoon Nebula

The full Lagoon Nebula is a vast region of gas, dust and stars, spanning 110 by 50 light-years.

The glow from growing stars

Arias and Barbá obtained the imaging data to explore the evolutionary relationship between the newborn stars and what are known as Herbig-Haro (HH) objects. HH objects form when young stars eject large amounts of fast-moving gas as they grow.

This gas ploughs into the surrounding nebula, producing bright shock fronts that glow as the gas is heated by friction and surrounding gas is excited by the high-energy radiation of nearby hot stars.

The researchers found a dozen HH objects in the image, range in size from about 1/10,000th of a light-year to 4.6 light-years (the latter being a little greater than the distance from the Sun to its nearest neighbour Proxima Centauri).

Detail image of the Lagoon Nebula's 'Southern Cliff'

Newborn stars are embedded in the tips of these thick dusty clouds.

Most of the newborn stars are embedded in the tips of thick dusty clouds, which have the appearance of bright-rimmed pillars.

The Lagoon Nebula is located in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius in the southern Milky Way. Viewed through large amateur telescopes, it appears as a pale ghostly glow with a touch of pink.

The astronomers used selective filters to reveal characteristics of the gas, and so the colours shown are not representative of the real colour. For example, light from the far-red end of the spectrum, beyond what the eye can see, appears blue in this image.

Download the full-size (5852 x 2667-pixel) image here.

International Facility

The Gemini Observatory is an international collaboration with two identical 8-metre telescopes. The Frederick C. Gillett Gemini Telescope is located on Mauna Kea, Hawai’i (Gemini North) and the other telescope on Cerro Pachón in central Chile (Gemini South). Together they provide coverage of the entire sky.

The Observatory is operated as a partnership of research agencies from seven countries: the US National Science Foundation (NSF), the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Canadian National Research Council (NRC), the Chilean Comisión Nacional de Investigación Cientifica y Tecnológica (CONICYT), the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Argentinean Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) and the Brazilian Conselho Nacional de Desenvolvimento Científico e Tecnológico (CNPq).

Adapted from information issued by Gemini Observatory. ‘Southern Cliff’ image courtesy Gemini Observatory / AURA / Julia Arias (Universidad de La Serena) and Rodolfo Barbá (Universidad de La Serena and ICATE-CONICET). Full Lagoon image courtesy ESO / S. Guisard.

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