Celestial Dreaming in a Bit of Pipe Smoke

Zoom into the Pipe Nebula by using the zoom slider, or pan around the image by using the arrow icons on the toolbar or by click-dragging the image. You can also zoom into a particular area by double-clicking on your area of interest. Image credit: ESO. Zoomify by John Williams.

Images like this of the Pipe Nebula from the European Southern Observatory’s La Silla Observatory help me dream about the grandeur of the night sky and the richness of the star lanes that make up the Milky Way.

Although called the Pipe Nebula, the sprawling dark lanes in the rich star clouds of the constellation Ophiuchus, the Serpent Bearer, have nothing to do with pipe smoke. When first discovered, astronomers thought these areas were areas of space that were devoid of stars. The reality is the dark nebulae contain clouds of interstellar dust so thick that they block all starlight from background stars. This image from the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at La Silla focuses on Barnard 59, the mouthpiece of the pipe; an area about six light-years across but still just a small part of the entire Pipe Nebula which in addition to Barnard 59 is made up of Barnard 65, 66, 65 and 78. You can explore more of the area in the image below.

ESO/S. Guis­ard (www.eso.org/~sguisard)

The twisting clouds in the center of the image resemble the legs of a dark spider. Clicking on the button in the lower-right of the viewer will take you to full-screen where hazy patterns begin to take shape. New stars are forming in these areas and their light dimly illuminates the dark, dense cloud. Star formation is common in these clouds. As the nebula moves, gas and dust clump together under the influence of gravity. More and more star-stuff piles together until a star is formed. Although Barnard 59 has a great deal of dust, very little star formation is currently taking place.

The La Silla Observatory gives astronomers such great views of the Universe because it sits high atop a mountain under the dry and dark skies of the Atacama Desert region in Chile. The observatory complex is the second most productive site in ground-based astronomy.

If you have sharp eyes, you might notice some objects that are much closer to Earth than the dark nebula found about 600 light-years away. Look for tiny blue, green and red strips scattered throughout the image. You might have to zoom in quite a bit and search. Ophiuchus lies within the plane of the ecliptic. These strips of color are paths of asteroids; tiny chunks of rock, ice and metal just a few kilometers across that orbit the Sun mostly between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. During the long exposures needed to create this image, the asteroids move. The colored trails are created as the image was combined from several taken in different colors.

Share your thoughts and impressions of this cosmic example of impressionistic art.

John Williams is a science writer and owner of TerraZoom, a Colorado-based web development shop specializing in web mapping and online image zooms. He also writes the award-winning blog, StarryCritters, an interactive site devoted to looking at images from NASA’s Great Observatories and other sources in a different way. A former contributing editor for Final Frontier, his work has appeared in the Planetary Society Blog, Air & Space Smithsonian, Astronomy, Earth, MX Developer’s Journal, The Kansas City Star and many other newspapers and magazines.

4 Replies to “Celestial Dreaming in a Bit of Pipe Smoke”

  1. What are those blue-green-red colored dots formed in a line fragments, on the Pipe Nebula image? By the way I found one interesting star at the middle-right side of it, whose light seems to be blocked by the right and top side, so it could be withing the same range as the Pipe Nebula is. And some (many) parts of the second image are truly exquisite. It gives me such an astonishing feeling to zoom into such images, thank you!

    1. Those blue-green-red dotted lines (there are several in this picture) are asteroid trails, as noted in the ESO press release: http://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1233/

      As fantastic as this new image from ESO is, I find it interesting to compare it with some of Barnard’s original images(and commentary) published in his monumental “A Photographic Atlas of Selected Regions of the Milky Way”. Even though the medium is outdated (blue sensitive emulsions on large glass plates), some of these early images of the Milky Way still hold their own compared with images acquired, admittedly at a fraction of the time and with improved spectral sensitivity, with modern electronic detectors. Add to that some of the quaint early 20th century descriptions of the objects photographed that are far removed from the quantitative nature of astronomy today. To wit:

      Plate 18: Region In Ophiuchus And Scorpius (4:33 hr exp): http://www.library.gatech.edu/Barnard_Project_W/PDF/plate18.pdf

      Here Barnard notes “I have called the west end of this remarkable structure(B 59) the “sink-hole” because of its form and the form of the structures in it.”

      Plate 20: Dark Markings Near Theta Ophiuchi (4:45 hr exp): http://www.library.gatech.edu/Barnard_Project_W/PDF/plate20.pdf

      This region is located near the ecliptic, and similar to the ESO image, Barnard notes that three asteroid trails are visible on this plate.

      EE Barnard was one of the last of the great observational astronomers (finding the last visually discovered moon, Amalthea, and independently discovering the gegenschein) while at the same time pioneering the nascent art of astrophotography, to which his “Atlas” is a lasting tribute.

  2. “The thing’s hollow – it goes on forever – and – oh my God – it’s full of stars!”

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