Over 6,000 light-years from Earth, an open star cluster and its nebula cover a swathe of sky over 270 light-years across. It’s called the Running Chicken Nebula, and it’s more than just one object. The Running Chicken Nebula, also called IC 2944, also contains IC 2948, the brightest part of the Chicken, as well as several Bok Globules and smaller nebulae. The bright star Lambda Centauri is near the visual center of the Chicken but is actually much closer to Earth.
This vast image spans 25 full Moons and is a composite image made up of hundreds of separate images carefully stitched together that contains 1.5 billion pixels. The European Southern Observatory’s VLT Survey Telescope captured the images. They’re from an observing campaign aimed at studying the lifecycle of stars.
The Running Chicken is full of scientific intrigue, but its visual appeal draws us all in. The region is a vast stellar nursery, lit up by young stars emitting powerful radiation. The radiation both lights up the gas and shapes it into intriguing patterns, creating the natural artwork that the powerful telescope brings into our visual range.
Powerful young stars and their energetic winds give the nebula its form and colour, but some parts of the nebula resist the energy. These are called Bok globules, and they’re dense clumps of gas and dust that can withstand the powerful UV energy from the young stars. They’re normally active star formation regions themselves and usually form double or multiple star systems, though the globules in the Running Chicken don’t seem to be forming any.
The Running Chicken is both an emission and a reflection nebula. Reflection nebulae reflect the light from nearby stars, while emission nebulae absorb starlight and then emit it at different wavelengths. It’s part of what makes the nebula so interesting.
The Running Chicken is also home to three smaller, separate nebulae named after their discoverer, astronomer Colin Gum. Gum 41 is dominated by a bright blue star in its center named HD 100099, which is actually two hot, massive, and young stars so close together that they can’t be resolved separately. HD 100099’s powerful UV energy turns the hydrogen gas red. Gum 41 takes the shape of a classic Stromgren sphere, a shell of gas around an O-type star. There’s actually gas outside the sphere, but the edge of the sphere is delineated by the central stars’ weakened light.
Regions full of hot red gas, like the Running Chicken Nebula, are signposts for star formation. Only massive, hot young stars have enough energy to light up their gaseous surroundings like this. Unlike our Sun, these stars don’t live very long, so neither do these nebula. Eventually, much of the gas will be dissipated, and only slow-burning, long-lived stars will reside there, and they won’t have the power to light things up like this again.
If you can’t clearly see a running chicken, you’re not alone. Some say that Gum 39 is the chicken’s head with Gum 41 an extended wingtip and IC 2948 forming the bulk of the chicken’s body. Some see it differently, and there seems to be no widespread agreement.
Regardless if you see a chicken or not (I don’t), the object is fascinating and rich in instructive detail.
You should definitely download the large 3.2 GB image and explore it.