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Ghostly green eye

Planetary nebula NGC 6826

NGC 6826 is a planetary nebula, the dying stages of a star's life.

THIS AMAZING IMAGE shows the ghostly “eye-like” planetary nebula NGC 6826, located 2,200 light-years from Earth.

Despite their name, planetary nebulae have nothing to do with planets. They got their name because, through early telescopes, they looked more like planets than stars.

In fact, a planetary nebula is a complex cloud of gas produced in the dying stages of certain stars’ lives.

A star’s life ends when the fuel available to its thermonuclear engine runs out. When the star is about to expire, it becomes unstable and ejects its outer layers, forming a planetary nebula and leaving behind a tiny, but very hot, stellar remnant, known as white dwarf.

Schematic of NGC 6826

Anatomy of planetary nebula NGC 6826

At NGC 6826’s centre, the white dwarf is driving a fast “wind” of gas into older gas material, forming a hot interior bubble that pushes the older gas ahead of it to form a bright rim. The faint green of the eye is believed to be gas that made up almost half of the star’s mass for most of its life.

The red blobs at the edges are called FLIERs, or Fast Low-Ionisation Emission Regions. They’re thought to be dense regions of gas either flung off by the star, or floating in space and caught up in the outflowing rush of the stellar wind.

Stellar evolution theory predicts that our Sun will experience a similar fate to NGC 6826 in about five billion years (out of an estimated overall lifespan of some ten billion years).

And by the way, what does the NGC in its name stand for? The New General Catalogue is a huge list of more than 7,800 “deep space” objects compiled in 1880s by the Danish-Irish astronomer J.L.E. Dreyer.

Downloadable wallpaper image: 1280 x 1280

Adapted from information issued by Bruce Balick (University of Washington), Jason Alexander (University of Washington), Arsen Hajian (U.S. Naval Observatory), Yervant Terzian (Cornell University), Mario Perinotto (University of Florence, Italy), Patrizio Patriarchi (Arcetri Observatory, Italy) and NASA/ESA.

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Toddler stars tear up the nursery

NGC 6729

Baby stars (hidden behind thick clouds of dust) are ejecting gas at speeds as high as one million kilometres per hour, tearing up the clouds within which they were born.

THE DRAMATIC EFFECT newborn stars have on the gas and dust from which they formed is shown in a new image from the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope

Although the stars themselves are not visible, material they have ejected is colliding with the surrounding gas and dust clouds and creating a surreal landscape of glowing arcs, blobs and streaks.

The star-forming region NGC 6729 is part of one of the closest stellar nurseries to the Earth and hence one of the best studied.

Stars form deep within thick gas clouds, which means the earliest stages of their development cannot be seen with visible-light telescopes because of obscuration by dust.

In this image, there are very young stars hidden behind the gas and dust at the upper left of the picture. Although they can’t be seen, the havoc that they have wreaked on their surroundings is clearly visible.

High-speed jets of gas shooting out from the baby stars at velocities as high as one million kilometres per hour are slamming into the surrounding gas and creating shock waves. These shocks cause the gas to shine and form the strangely coloured glowing arcs and blobs known as Herbig–Haro objects.

This enhanced-colour picture was created from images taken using the FORS1 instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope. Images were taken through two different filters that isolate the light coming from glowing hydrogen (shown as orange) and glowing ionised sulphur (shown as blue).

Adapted from information issued by ESO.

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Ghostly veil in space

Part of the Veil Nebula

The eastern section of the Veil Nebula, part of a much larger nebula called the Cygnus Loop.

HANGING IN SPACE LIKE A GHOSTLY curtain in space is the Veil Nebula, part of a much larger nebula called the Cygnus Loop.

The Cygnus Loop is the expanding gas cloud remnant of a supernova (exploded star) which happened between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago. It is almost 1,500 light-years from Earth.

In effect it is a giant gas bubble in space, and what we see is the edge of the bubble. It’s also very large—about 90 light-years wide. If we could see the whole Loop with the naked eye in the night sky, it would appear three times wider than the full Moon.

The entire Loop can be picked up a certain special wavelengths, but at visible light wavelengths only part of it is visible. The Veil Nebula is one of those parts.

The image above shows the eastern part of the Veil, and was taken with the Wide Field Camera on the Isaac Newton Telescope in the Canary Islands.

It is a combination of three images made with special filters: one that brings out the presence of hydrogen (coloured red in the image), one that highlights doubly ionised oxygen (green) and one that reveals sulphur (blue).

See the full-size image here. Warning – huge file! 3.67MB – 6,079 x 3,880 pixels.

The Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes (ING) comprises the 4.2m William Herschel Telescope (WHT), the 2.5m Isaac Newton Telescope (INT), and the 1.0m Jacobus Kapteyn Telescope (JKT), operating on the island of La Palma in the Canary Islands, Spain.

The Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes is operated on behalf of the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the Nederlanse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek (NWO), and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC). The STFC, the NWO, and the IAC have entered into collaborative agreements for the operation of and the sharing of observing time on the ING telescopes.

Story copyright Jonathan Nally, SpaceInfo.com.au. Additional info courtesy ING. Image courtesy of the IAC astrophotography group (A. Oscoz, D. López, P. Rodríguez-Gil and L. Chinarro).

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Stunning blue nebula

Nebula Messier 78

Reflection nebula Messier 78 is 1,350 light-years from Earth. The blue colour comes from reflected starlight. See below for a link to the full-size image, and screen wallpapers you can download.

  • Nebula Messier 78 is 1,350 light-years from Earth
  • Blue colour comes from starlight reflected from tiny dust particles
  • Home to dozens of very young stars

THE NEBULA MESSIER 78 takes centre stage in this image taken with the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, while the stars powering the bright display take a backseat.

The brilliant starlight ricochets off dust particles in the nebula, illuminating it with scattered blue light.

Messier 78 is a fine example of a reflection nebula. The ultraviolet radiation from the stars that illuminate it is not intense enough to ionise the gas to make it glow — its dust particles simply reflect the starlight that falls on them.

Despite this, Messier 78 can easily be observed with a small telescope, being one of the brightest reflection nebulae in the sky. It lies about 1,350 light-years away in the direction of the constellation of Orion (The Hunter) and can be found northeast of the easternmost star of Orion’s belt.

This new image of Messier 78 from the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory is based on data selected by Igor Chekalin in his winning entry to the ESO Hidden Treasures competition.

See the full-size image here.

Home to young stars

The pale blue tint seen in the nebula in this picture is an accurate representation of its dominant colour. Blue hues are commonly seen in reflection nebulae because of the way the starlight is scattered by the tiny dust particles that they contain—the shorter wavelength of blue light is scattered more efficiently than the longer wavelength red light.

This image contains many other striking features apart from the glowing nebula. A thick band of obscuring dust stretches across the image from the upper left to the lower right, blocking the light from background stars. In the bottom right corner, many curious pink structures are also visible, which are created by jets of material being ejected from stars that have recently formed and are still buried deep in dust clouds.

Two bright stars, HD 38563A and HD 38563B, are the main powerhouses behind Messier 78.

However, the nebula is home to many more stars, including a collection of about 45 low mass, young stars (less than 10 million years old) in which the cores are still too cool for hydrogen fusion to start, known as T Tauri stars.

Studying T Tauri stars is important for understanding the early stages of star formation and how planetary systems are formed.

Remarkably, this complex of nebulae has also changed significantly in the last ten years. In February 2004 the experienced amateur observer Jay McNeil took an image of this region with a small (75mm) telescope and was surprised to see a bright nebula—the prominent fan shaped feature near the bottom of this picture—where nothing was seen on most earlier images.

This part of the object is now known as McNeil’s Nebula and it appears to be a highly variable reflection nebula around a young star.

Screen wallpapers:

Messier 78 wallpaper 1068 x 768

Messier 78 wallpaper 1280 x 1024

Messier 78 wallpaper 1600 x 1200

Adapted from information issued by ESO. Image credit: ESO and Igor Chekalin.

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Star spangled nebula

Spitzer image of the North American Nebula

This new Spitzer Space Telescope infrared image of the North American Nebula reveals a multitude of young stars, ordinarily hidden in visible wavelength images by veils of dust.

  • Nebula shaped like the North American continent
  • Infrared view pierces the veil of dust, revealing stars
  • Thousands of young stars seen in Spitzer telescope image

STARS AT ALL STAGES of development, from dusty little tots to young adults, are on display in a new image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

This cosmic community is called the North American Nebula. At visible light wavelength pictures, the region resembles the North American continent, with the most striking resemblance being the Gulf of Mexico.

But in Spitzer’s infrared view, the continent disappears. Instead, a swirling landscape of dust and young stars comes into view.

“One of the things that makes me so excited about this image is how different it is from the visible image, and how much more we can see in the infrared than in the visible,” said Luisa Rebull of NASA’s Spitzer Science Centre at the California Institute of Technology.

Rebull is lead author of a paper about the observations, accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

“The Spitzer image reveals a wealth of detail about the dust and the young stars here.”

Dusty environment

Rebull and her team have identified more than 2,000 new, candidate young stars in the region. There were only about 200 known before.

Because young stars grow up surrounded by blankets of dust, they are hidden in visible-light images. Spitzer’s infrared detectors pick up the glow of the dusty, buried stars.

Visible and infrared views of the North American Nebula

Spot the difference. Visible light (left) and infrared wavelength (right) views of the North American Nebula, taken by the Digitised Sky Survey and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, respectively. Infrared can see through the dust and gas.

A star is born inside a collapsing ball of gas and dust. As the material collapses inward, it flattens out into a disc that spins around together with the forming star like a spinning top. Jets of gas shoot perpendicularly away from the disc, above and below it.

As the star ages, planets are thought to form out of the disc—material clumps together, ultimately growing into mature planets. Eventually, most of the dust dissipates, aside from a tenuous ring similar to the one in our Solar System, referred to as Zodiacal dust.

Family portrait

The new Spitzer image reveals all the stages of a star’s young life, from the early years when it is swaddled in dust to early adulthood, when it has become a young parent to a family of developing planets. Sprightly “toddler” stars with jets can also be identified in Spitzer’s view.

“This is a really busy area to image, with stars everywhere, from the North American complex itself, as well as in front of and behind the region,” said Rebull.

Young stars in the "Gulf of Mexico" part of the North American Nebula

A cluster of young stars in the "Gulf of Mexico," part of the North American Nebula.

“We refer to the stars that are not associated with the region as contamination,” Rebull added. “With Spitzer, we can easily sort this contamination out and clearly distinguish between the young stars in the complex and the older ones that are unrelated.”

See the full-size image here.

More mysteries to solve

The North American Nebula still has a mystery surrounding it, involving its power source. Nobody has been able to identify the group of massive stars that is thought to be dominating and illuminating the nebula.

The Spitzer image, like images from other telescopes, hints that the missing stars are lurking behind the Gulf of Mexico portion of the nebula. This is evident from the illumination pattern of the nebula, especially when viewed with the detector on Spitzer that picks up 24-micron infrared light. That light appears to be coming from behind the Gulf of Mexico’s dark tangle of clouds, in the same way that sunlight creeps out from behind a rain cloud.

The nebula’s distance from Earth is also a mystery. Current estimates put it at about 1,800 light-years from Earth.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech. Images courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / L. Rebull (SSC / Caltech).

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Diving into the Lagoon

Infrared and visible light views of the Lagoon Nebula

Comparison of infrared (top) and visible light (bottom) views of the Lagoon Nebula (Messier 8). In the infrared, the dust clouds become more transparent and the gas clouds less conspicuous. A whole host of cool red stars that are otherwise invisible are revealed.

  • Lagoon Nebula is a “stellar nursery” where stars are born
  • Located 4,000 to 5,000 light-years from Earth
  • New image taken by the world’s biggest survey telescope

A NEW INFRARED IMAGE of the Lagoon Nebula was captured as part of a five-year study of the Milky Way using ESO’s VISTA telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile.

This is a small piece of a much larger image of the region surrounding the nebula, which is, in turn, only one part of a huge sky survey.

Astronomers are currently using ESO’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) to scour the Milky Way’s central regions for variable objects and map its structure in greater detail than ever before.

This huge survey is called VISTA Variables in the Via Lactea (VVV). (Via Lactea means Milky Way in  Latin.) The new infrared image presented here was taken as part of this survey. It shows the stellar “nursery” called the Lagoon Nebula (also known as Messier 8), which is about 4,000-5,000 light-years away.

Infrared observations allow astronomers to peer through the veil of dust that prevents them from seeing celestial objects in visible light. This is because visible light, which has a wavelength that is about the same size as the dust particles, is strongly scattered, but the longer wavelength infrared light can pass through the dust largely unscathed.

VISTA, with its 4.1-metre-diameter mirror—the largest survey telescope in the world—is dedicated to surveying large areas of the sky at near-infrared wavelengths deeply and quickly. It is therefore ideally suited to studying star birth.

Watch a video zooming in on the Lagoon:

Stellar nursery

Stars typically form in large molecular clouds of gas and dust, which collapse under their own weight. The Lagoon Nebula, however, is also home to a number of much more compact regions of collapsing gas and dust, called Bok globules. These dark clouds are so dense that, even in the infrared, they can block the starlight from background stars.

But the most famous dark feature in the nebula, for which it is named, is the lagoon-shaped dust lane that winds its way through the glowing cloud of gas. Hot, young stars, which give off intense ultraviolet light, are responsible for making the nebula glow brightly.

But the Lagoon Nebula is also home to much younger stellar infants. Newborn stars detected in the nebula are so young that they are still surrounded by their natal accretion discs.

Such newborn stars occasionally eject jets of matter from their poles. When this ejected material ploughs into the surrounding gas short-lived bright streaks called Herbig-Haro objects are formed, making the newborns easy to spot.

In the last five years, several Herbig-Haro objects have been detected in the Lagoon Nebula, so the baby boom is clearly still in progress here.

Adapted from information issued by ESO / VVV / Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit. The science team for VVV includes Dante Minniti (Universidad Catolica, Chile), Phil Lucas (University of Hertfordshire, UK), Ignacio Toledo (Universidad Catolica), and Maren Hempel (Universidad Catolica).

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Hubble’s cosmic bauble

Hubble image of SNR B0509-67.5

This delicate shell formed as the expanding blast wave and ejected material from a supernova (an exploding star) tore through the surrounding interstellar gas. It is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small galaxy about 160 000 light-years from Earth.

  • Expanding shell of gas from an exploded star
  • Explosion occurred about 400 years ago
  • Image made from combined Hubble images

Hubble has spotted a festive bauble of gas in our neighbouring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. Formed in the aftermath of a supernova explosion that took place four centuries ago, this sphere of gas has been snapped in a series of observations made between 2006 and 2010.

The delicate shell, photographed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, appears to float serenely in the depths of space, but this apparent calm hides an inner turmoil. The gaseous envelope formed as the expanding blast wave and ejected material from a supernova tore through the nearby interstellar medium.

Called SNR B0509-67.5 (or SNR 0509 for short), the bubble is the visible remnant of a powerful stellar explosion in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a small galaxy about 160,000 light-years from Earth.

Ripples seen in the shell’s surface may be caused either by subtle variations in the density of the ambient interstellar gas, or possibly be driven from the interior by fragments from the initial explosion.

The bubble-shaped shroud of gas is 23 light-years across and is expanding at more than 18 million km/h.

Hubble and Chandra image of SNR B0509-67.5

The Hubble images overlaid with data (green) from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory that show where the gas is so hot that it emits high-powered X-rays. The bubble-shaped shroud of gas is 23 light-years across and is expanding at more than 18 million km/h.

Astronomers have concluded that the explosion was an example of an especially energetic and bright variety of supernova. Known as Type Ia, such supernova events are thought to result when a white dwarf star in a binary system robs its partner of gas, taking on more mass than it is able to handle, so that it eventually explodes.

Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys observed the supernova remnant on 28 October 2006 with a filter that isolates light from the glowing hydrogen seen in the expanding shell. These observations were then combined with visible-light images of the surrounding star field that were imaged with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 on 4 November 2010.

With an age of about 400 years, the supernova might have been visible to Southern Hemisphere observers around the year 1600, although there are no known records of a “new star” in the direction of the LMC near that time.

A much more recent supernova in the LMC, SN 1987A, did catch the eye of Earth viewers and continues to be studied with ground- and space-based telescopes, including Hubble.

Adapted from information issued by the ESA–Hubble Information Centre. Image credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) / CXC / SAO. Acknowledgement: J. Hughes (Rutgers University).

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Cosmic jellyfish afloat in starry sea

NGC 1514

It looks like a deep-sea creature, but it's actually a dying star, or planetary nebula, known as NGC 1514.

  • Object is known as the ‘Crystal Ball’ nebula
  • Comprises a pair of stars surrounded by gas rings
  • Indicates the dying stage of a stars’ life

A new image from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer shows what looks like a glowing jellyfish floating at the bottom of a dark, speckled sea.

In reality, this critter belongs to the cosmos—it’s a dying star surrounded by fluorescing gas and two very unusual rings.

“I am reminded of the jellyfish exhibition at the Monterey Bay Aquarium—beautiful things floating in water, except this one is in space,” said Edward (Ned) Wright, the principal investigator of the WISE mission at UCLA, and a co-author of a paper on the findings, reported in the Astronomical Journal.

The object, known as NGC 1514 and sometimes the ‘Crystal Ball’ nebula, belongs to a class of objects called planetary nebulae, which form when dying stars toss off their outer layers of material.

NGC 1514 is located 800 light-years away, in the direction of the constellation Taurus.

Ultraviolet light from a central star, or in this case a pair of stars, causes the gas to fluoresce with colourful light. The result is often beautiful—these objects have been referred to as the butterflies of space.

NGC 1514 was discovered in 1790 by Sir William Herschel, who noted that its “shining fluid” meant that it could not be a faint cluster of stars, as originally suspected.

Herschel had previously coined the term planetary nebulae to describe similar objects with circular, planet-like shapes. In reality they have nothing to do with planets.

Visible light and infrared views of NGC 1514

Two views of NGC 1514. On the left is the view from a ground-based, visible-light telescope; the view on the right shows the object in infrared light, as seen by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, satellite.

Dying star’s last gasp

Planetary nebulae with asymmetrical wings of nebulosity are common. But nothing like the newfound rings around NGC 1514 had been seen before. Astronomers say the rings are made of dust ejected by the dying pair of stars at the centre of NGC 1514. This burst of dust collided with the walls of a cavity that was already cleared out by stellar winds, forming the rings.

“I just happened to look up one of my favourite objects in our WISE catalogue and was shocked to see these odd rings,” said Michael Ressler, a member of the WISE science team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and lead author of the paper.

Ressler first became acquainted with the object years ago while playing around with his amateur telescope on a desert camping trip. “It’s funny how things come around full circle like this.”

WISE was able to spot the rings for the first time because their dust is being heated and glows with the infrared light that WISE can detect. In visible-light images, the rings are hidden from view, overwhelmed by the brightly fluorescing clouds of gas.

Artist's impression of the WISE space telescope

Artist's impression of the WISE space telescope, which studies the cosmos at infrared wavelengths.

“This object has been studied for more than 200 years, but WISE shows us it still has surprises,” said Ressler.

Unexpected finding

Serendipitous findings like this one are common in survey missions like WISE, which comb through the whole sky. WISE has been surveying the sky in infrared light since January 2010, cataloguing hundreds of millions of asteroids, stars and galaxies.

In late September 2010, after covering the sky about one-and-a-half times, as planned it ran out of the frozen coolant needed to chill its longest-wavelength detectors.

The mission, now called NEOWISE, is still scanning the skies with two other of its infrared detectors, focusing primarily on comets and asteroids, including near-Earth objects, which are bodies whose orbits pass relatively close to Earth’s orbit around the sun.

The WISE science team says that more oddballs like NGC 1514 are sure to turn up in the plethora of WISE data—the first batch of which will be released to the astronomical community in spring 2011.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / DigitiSed Sky Survey / STScI.

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The Trifid Nebula

The Trifid Nebula

Dark "lanes" of dense interstellar dust trisect the glowing gas of the Trifid Nebula, 9,000 light-years from Earth.

Nine-thousand light-years away in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, lies the famous Trifid Nebula, so-called for the three dark “lanes” that trisect it.

The Trifid’s triple nature is not limited to the lanes though. It is also three different types of nebulosity in one…it is a reflection, emission and dark nebula in one neat package.

A nebula is a cloud of gas and sometimes dust, floating in interstellar space.

Reflection nebulae have a bluish colour. We see them because light from nearby stars is reflecting off them—the process preferentially reflects the blue wavelengths of the starlight.

Emission nebulae are pinkish. In this case they’re not reflecting light, but emitting their own pale glow. (In the case of the image above, the emission nebulosity looks orange due to the particular wavelength observation used to make the image.)

Silhouetted against brighter backgrounds, dark nebulae stand out like ghostly holes in space. In reality they are very dense clouds of gas and dust particles—they don’t give off or reflect any light to speak of.

The Trifid was discovered in 1764 by the French astronomer Charles Messier, who made it number 20 in his catalogue of “deep sky” objects…hence it’s other common name, M 20.

Messier was a comet hunter who had become frustrated by repeatedly coming across fuzzy blobs in the sky that didn’t turn out to be comets. He decided to make a catalogue of those blobs so that he and other astronomers could learn to ignore them in future.

Ironically, he is now better known for his list of 103 deep sky objects (more were added later by other astronomers) than he is for the 13 comets he discovered.

At the time, Messier thought M 20 was actually a small bunch of stars that couldn’t quite be seen individually. But he did notice the three dark lanes running through it, and gave it the name Trifid.

Story by Jonathan Nally, editor SpaceInfo.com.au

Image courtesy IAC / Daniel López.

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Sculptures in space

Nebulosity in the Carina Nebula

Light-year-long pillars of cold hydrogen gas and interstellar dust in the Carina Nebula.

Enjoying a frozen treat on a hot summer day can leave a sticky mess as it melts in the Sun and deforms. In the cold vacuum of space, there is no edible ice cream, but there is radiation from massive stars that is carving away at cold molecular clouds, creating bizarre, fantasy-like structures.

These one-light-year-tall pillars of cold hydrogen and dust, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, are located in the Carina Nebula. Violent stellar winds and powerful radiation from massive stars are sculpting the surrounding nebula. Inside the dense structures, new stars may be born.

See the full-size, high-resolution version here (new window).

This image of dust pillars in the Carina Nebula is a composite of 2005 observations taken of the region in hydrogen light (light emitted by hydrogen atoms) along with 2010 observations taken in oxygen light (light emitted by oxygen atoms), both times with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The immense Carina Nebula is an estimated 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / ESA / Hubble Heritage Project (STScI / AURA) / M. Livio (STScI) / N. Smith (UCB).

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