Astrophoto: The Horsehead Nebula by Filippo Ciferri

Astrophoto: The Horsehead Nebula  Image by: Filippo CiferriAnimals have always been important subjects for sculpture. In its earliest representations, the purpose was to gain control over the creature or to confer magical powers- equestrian statues, especially so. Thus, over the ages, the horse became an icon of civilization. Sculptures of horses have meant different things to different cultures- initially as prey then as abundance. During Antiquity the horse was viewed as the embodiment of power and more recently it has been used as a metaphor for freedom, journeys to distant places and the pursuit of personal dreams. To many, the horse has taken on a monumental stature that stirs deep-seated feelings whether it is carved out of rock or composed of ephemeral wisps in the dim reaches of outer space.

Almost sixty years ago, Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski set off the first blast at Thunderhead Mountain, a massive monolith of solid granite in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Though originally from Boston, the intensity of his relationship with the mountain would endure the rest of his life.

Ziolkowski was a prolific sculptor who had been awarded prizes for works displayed at the 1939 New York World’s fair and had also assisted Gutzon Borglum with the massive stone carvings of four American Presidents on Mt. Rushmore- a monument that had troubled the local Black Hills Indian leaders. They wanted the white man to know that they had great heroes, too. So, Ziolkowski accepted the invitation of Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear to transform a mountain into a memorial for Tashunka Witco, who is also known as great American Sioux Indian leader, Crazy Horse.

Best known for helping to deliver General George Custer’s stinging defeat at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876, Tashunka Witco remains an inspiration to his people and others for his desire to preserve the Lakota way of life. He died young from a bayonet wound received while being ambushed, ominously, thirty-one years, to the day, before the sculptor of his memorial was born.

The scale of the project is absolutely enormous. It will rise higher than the Washington Monument, the warrior’s outstretched arm will be the length of a football field and the face, recently completed in 1998, is larger than all of the Presidents on Mt.Rushmore put together. When the statue finished, it will be the largest sculpture in the world — Tashunka Witco, mounted on a magnificent stallion in full gallop, a defiant finger pointing into the distance.

Located about fourteen miles away from the famous faces on Mt. Rushmore, Ziolkowski chose to work alone and from 1949 until his death in 1982, had only mountain goats as working companions. During this time he dynamited and bulldozed over seven and a half million tons of rock to begin exposing the figure of Tashunka Witco that he envisioned trapped within the mountain. As the years passed, he recognized that he would not finish yet he persevered until his hammering fell silent one day while he was working.

Over time, seven of ten children and his wife, Ruth, joined the project but none of his family, even today, can say when the statue will be completed- certainly not during his wife’s life and possibly not during his children’s time, either.

During his years at work on the project, Ziolkowski did not take a salary, twice refused a $10 million government grant and subsisted on funds from private donations and admissions to the site’s sprawling visitor center. This is still the case for the Foundation that he bequeathed, today. Ziolkowski was determined that his vision remain free of interference and that the monument would not represent a single Indian leader but stand as a memorial to all Native Americans. An inscription near the entrance of the Memorial provides a clue for why this great artist, and others like him, struggle against overwhelming odds: When the legends die, the dreams end, (and) there is no more greatness.

About 1,600 light years beyond the Black Hills of South Dakota, lies another great monument. Although this one is created entirely by the hand of nature, capturing it photographically has remained a significant challenge. Regardless of your reaction to the sight of an equestrian statue, it’s significant to note that a poll ranked the subject of this discussion’s featured image as the most evocative and recognizable object in the sky- a familiar pastoral creature poised against the infinite that lies beyond.

It’s interesting that this nebula has become a favorite for so many since long photographic exposures are the only way to see it clearly. Surprisingly, the uncanny resemblance to a stallion was only first spotted in 1888 by a pioneering female scientist, Williamina Fleming, while analyzing photographic plate B2312 taken at the Harvard College Observatory. The original view, many obtained shortly thereafter and those produced for decades, only revealed a rough, dark outline against a curtain of more distant, lighter-toned material.

Traveling to the Horsehead only requires a glance towards the constellation of Orion– a familiar star grouping that is well placed for viewing by around 8PM during the month of December. Where to scan the sky is based on where you are located. Northern observers should look to the southeast while those south of the equator will need to look toward the eastern part of the sky, northward.

The Horsehead Nebula appears to hang from the left most star of the three bright ones forming Orion’s belt. But, don’t bother trying to see it with your naked eye- unless you’re under a very dark non-light polluted sky, armed with a relatively large telescope and a H-beta filter (which many star gazers report will significantly improve your chances), you won’t be able to see it visually. This is because the Horsehead Nebula is seen in silhouette against the vast complex of hydrogen clouds that are behind and surrounding it. In deep space, molecular hydrogen emits a faint ruddy glow that also happens to be a hue that is most difficult for our green sensitive eyes to recognize through a telescope.

The Horsehead Nebula is a cold, dark column of gas and dust about five light years in height. The small bright area at the top edge is a young star still embedded within and slowly eroding this interstellar nursery. The top of the nebula also is being sculpted by radiation from the massive, left most belt star in Orion, located outside this field of view. It’s glare is still very noticeable intruding diagonally from the bottom left.

Filippo Ciferri, the astronomer who produced the amazing, almost three dimensional image that accompanies this discussion, lives and pursues his many interests from his home in metropolitan Rome, Italy. Like most modern cities, Rome at night is awash with the brilliance of artificial lights. A casual glace at the night sky from near central Rome will not reveal thousands of stars or the Milky Way overhead, instead, the observer would be fortunate to count more than ten or twenty of only the brightest ones. So, it would not seem unreasonable for a citizen of that city to pursue their astronomical fascination by acquiring a telescope to transport and use in the countryside where it was darker. Remarkably, that approach was not taken to produce this picture- the astrophotographer decided to create it from his light polluted backyard despite overwhelming odds against success.

Producing an image of this subject with clarity is not an easy task. Yet, this image rivals some of the best pictures taken with telescopes, under dark sky conditions, that have a one meter aperture! So, it’s quite an accomplishment that Filippo could create it with an instrument only eight inches in diameter from his light polluted location. It required determination, stamina and the creativity of a true artist!

Filippo spent over 29 hours taking this exposure- that, in itself, was a monumental task! And although it may not be as long as Ziolkowski worked on his mountain, I suspect it still seemed like an eternity for this dedicated astrophotographer to produce it! The effort was certainly worthwhile!

Do you have photos you’d like to share? Post them to the Universe Today astrophotography forum or email them, and we might feature one in Universe Today.

Written by R. Jay GaBany

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