Here’s the iconic Horsehead Nebula as we’ve not seen it before. As the Hubble team so poetically puts it, the nebula looks “like an apparition rising from whitecaps of interstellar foam.” The new image of the Horsehead was photographed in celebration of the 23rd anniversary of the launch of Hubble aboard the space shuttle Discovery, on April 24, 1990.
Can you believe the Hubble Space Telescope has been in space for 23 years? … and it’s been churning out great images for almost 20 years since it was fixed in space during the first Hubble servicing mission in 1993.
This view shows the nebula in infrared wavelengths. When seen in optical light (see below), it appears dark and shadowy, but is “transparent and ethereal when seen in the infrared, represented here with visible shades. The rich tapestry of the Horsehead Nebula pops out against the backdrop of Milky Way stars and distant galaxies that are easily seen in infrared light,” the Hubble team said.
Gas clouds surrounding the Horsehead have already dissipated, but the tip of the jutting pillar contains a slightly higher density of hydrogen and helium, laced with dust. This casts a shadow that protects material behind it from being photo-evaporated, and a pillar structure forms. Astronomers estimate that the Horsehead formation has about five million years left before it too disintegrates.
The Horsehead Nebula is part of a much larger complex in the constellation Orion. Known collectively as the Orion Molecular Cloud, it also houses other famous objects such as the Great Orion Nebula (M42), the Flame Nebula, and Barnard’s Loop. At about 1,500 light-years away, this complex is one of the nearest and most easily photographed regions in which massive stars are being formed.
Hubble’s pairing of infrared sensitivity and unparalleled resolution offers a tantalizing hint of what the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, set for launch in 2018, will be able to do.