Stunning 3D Tours of Two Well-Known Nebulae

Two videos recently released by the Hubble team take us on a tour of two famous and intriguing cosmic objects: the stellar wind-blown “celestial snow angel” Sharpless 2-106 and the uncannily equine Horsehead Nebula, imaged in infrared wavelengths by the HST.

Using Hubble imagery complemented with data from the Subaru Infrared Telescope and ESO’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy — VISTA, for short — the videos show us an approximation of the three-dimensional structures of these objects relative to the stars surrounding them, providing a perspective otherwise impossible from our viewpoint on Earth.

The stellar nursery Sharpless 2-106 is above; hop on the Horsehead Nebula tour below:
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Hubble’s Snow Angel

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If you need a little help getting into the holiday spirit, the Hubble Space Telescope is here to assist. This gorgeous new image shows a bipolar star-forming region, called Sharpless 2-106, (S106 for short) which looks like a soaring, celestial snow angel. The outstretched “wings” of the nebula are actually the contrasting imprint of heat and motion against the backdrop of a colder medium. Twin lobes of super-hot gas, glowing blue in this image, stretch outward from the central star, forming the wings.

Hubble snapped this image in February 2011, using the Wide Field Camera 3. Visible narrow-band filters that isolate the hydrogen gas were combined with near-infrared filters that show structure in the cooler gas and dust.

A massive, young star, IRS 4 (Infrared Source 4), is responsible for all the activity here. A ring of dust and gas orbiting the star acts like a belt, cinching the expanding nebula into an hourglass shape. Hubble’s sharp resolution reveals ripples and ridges in the gas as it interacts with the cooler interstellar medium.

Although you can’t see them here, detailed studies of the nebula have also uncovered several hundred brown dwarfs. At purely infrared wavelengths, more than 600 of these sub-stellar objects appear. These “failed” stars weigh less than a tenth of the Sun. Because of their low mass, they cannot produce energy through nuclear fusion like the Sun does.