New view of the Horsehead Nebula

Horsehead Nebula in infrared light

The rich tapestry of the Horsehead Nebula pops out against the backdrop of Milky Way stars and distant galaxies that easily are visible in infrared light. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

ASTRONOMERS HAVE USED NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory have produced stunning new photographs of the iconic Horsehead Nebula at infrared wavelengths.

Looking like an apparition rising from whitecaps of interstellar foam, the iconic Horsehead Nebula has graced astronomy books ever since its discovery more than a century ago. It is about 1,300 light-years from Earth.

The new far-infrared Herschel view shows in spectacular detail the scene playing out around the Horsehead Nebula at the right-hand side of the image, where it seems to surf like a ‘white horse’ in the waves of turbulent star-forming clouds.

Horsehead Nebula in infrared light

A new view from ESA’s Herschel space observatory of the iconic Horsehead Nebula (right) and two other prominent sites where massive stars are forming, NGC 2068 and NGC 2071 (left). Image credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS, SPIRE/N. Schneider, Ph. André, V. Könyves (CEA Saclay, France) for the “Gould Belt survey” Key Programme.

It appears to be riding towards another favorite stopping point for astrophotographers: NGC 2024, also known as the Flame Nebula. This star-forming region appears obscured by dark dust lanes in visible light images, but blazes in full glory in the far-infrared Herschel view.

Intense radiation streaming away from newborn stars heats up the surrounding dust and gas, making it shine brightly to Herschel’s infrared-sensitive eyes.

The panoramic view also covers two prominent sites of massive star formation to the northeast (left-hand side of this image), known as NGC 2068 (or M78) and NGC 2071. These take on the appearance of beautifully patterned butterfly wings, with long tails of colder gas and dust streaming away.

A wide-angle view of the Horsehead Nebula

A wide-angle view of the Horsehead Nebula, seen at normal visible wavelengths. Image Credit: NASA

Extensive networks of cool gas and dust weave throughout the scene in the form of red and yellow filaments, some of which may host newly forming lightweight stars.

The new Hubble view, taken at near-infrared wavelengths with its Wide Field Camera 3 to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of the launch of the observatory, zooms in on the Horsehead to reveal fine details of its structure.

Nearby stars illuminate the backlit wisps along the upper ridge of the nebula in an ethereal glow. The harsh ultraviolet glare from these bright stars is slowly evaporating the dusty stellar nursery. Two fledgling stars have already been exposed from their protective cocoons, and can just be seen peeking out from the upper ridge.

The nebula is a favourite target for amateur and professional astronomers. It is shadowy in optical light, but appears transparent and ethereal when seen at infrared wavelengths.

Detailed, visible wavelength image of the Horsehead

This detailed, visible wavelength image of the Horsehead was released by the European Southern Observatory in 2002. Image credit: ESO

Adapted from information issued by NASA and ESA.

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