Images

You’ll Need all the Internet to Download the Full Resolution of this New Running Chicken Nebula Image

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 Nebula comprises several clouds, the most prominent of which are labelled in this image from the VLT Survey Telescope (VST), hosted at ESO’s Paranal site. Gum 39, 40, and 41 are emission nebulae within the Chicken. The region is also home to multiple Bok globules, smaller isolated nebula made of dense gas and dust, which are normally active regions of star formation. Image Credit: ESO/VPHAS+ team. Acknowledgement: CASU

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.

This zoomed-in portion of the image shows the primary nebula region, showing off the intricate forms and colours created by the interplay of energetic young stars and the gas that surrounds them. Image Credit: ESO/VPHAS+ team. Acknowledgement: CASU

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.

This zoomed-in image shows Bok globules in the lower left and upper right. Bok globules are isolated dense clumps of gas and dust that resist the radiation from nearby young stars. They’re typically active star formation regions and contain up to 50 solar masses of gas and dust and are typically about one light-year across. Image Credit: ESO/VPHAS+ team. Acknowledgement: CASU

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.

This zoomed-in image shows the Gum 41 nebula and the double-star HD 1000999 that powers it. The star’s ferocious stellar winds are carving out a cavity in the nebula, lighting it up and giving it its shape. Ridges of brighter, denser gas build up where the star’s wind slams into the surrounding material. Image Credit: ESO/VPHAS+ team. Acknowledgement: CASU

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.

Evan Gough

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