Friday, January 21, 2011

Weekend SkyWatcher's Forecast: And the Cradle Still Rocks...

Contributed by Tammy Plotner

Are you ready to observe? I mean really observe - not just take a glance and go on. If so, this weekend would be a great opportunity to try your hand at rocking the cradle!

When it comes to a stellar birthplace, there is no grander nor more often studied region of the night sky than the Great Orion Nebula. We've all seen it - be it through the most modest of binoculars to the most powerful of telescopes. We know it as one of the most famous of all star-forming regions - one frozen in our modest span of time - yet one that still hold a few surprises...

Acccording to the latest ESO Press Release, the Orion Nebula, also known as Messier 42, is one of the most easily recognisable and best-studied celestial objects. It is a huge complex of gas and dust where massive stars are forming and is the closest such region to the Earth. The glowing gas is so bright that it can be seen with the unaided eye and is a fascinating sight through a telescope. Despite its familiarity and closeness there is still much to learn about this stellar nursery. It was only in 2007, for instance, that the nebula was shown to be closer to us than previously thought: 1350 light-years, rather than about 1500 light-years.

Astronomers have used the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile to observe the stars within Messier 42. They found that the faint red dwarfs in the star cluster associated with the glowing gas radiate much more light than had previously been thought, giving us further insights into this famous object and the stars that it hosts. The data collected for this science project, with no original intention to make a colour image, have now been reused to create the richly detailed picture of Messier 42 shown here.

The image is a composite of several exposures taken through a total of five different filters. Light that passed through a red filter as well as light from a filter that shows the glowing hydrogen gas, were coloured red. Light in the yellow–green part of the spectrum is coloured green, blue light is coloured blue and light that passed through an ultraviolet filter has been coloured purple. The exposure times were about 52 minutes through each filter. This image was processed by ESO using the observational data found by Igor Chekalin (Russia) [1], who participated in ESO’s Hidden Treasures 2010 astrophotography competition [2], organised by ESO in October–November 2010, for everyone who enjoys making beautiful images of the night sky using real astronomical data.

Although the Moon will greatly interfere with any observations of M42 if you wait until late, this weekend would be a wonderful time to get in some early observations. While cold weather in some areas might tempt you to make the most brief of looks, dress for success and really take your time to look at this incredible beauty. The more aperture you add, the more details you will see - such as thick tendrils of nebula embedded with jewel-like stars. For those will large telescopes, take the time to really power up to your theoretical limits and see just how many stars you can resolve in the Trapezium region! No matter what optics you choose, keep in mind what you have seen here, what we continue to discover and what it means...

Cuz' the cradle still rocks!

Original Source: ESO Press Release - Image Credit: Wide Field Imager/La Silla Observatory, Chile - Chart Credt: La Silla Observatory, Chile. We thank you so much!

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