Thursday, September 23, 2010

Hubble Telescope Captures Heavenly Vision of Lagoon Nebula

A majestic new image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals billowing waves of glowing gas and dust at the heart of a bright and active star-forming nebula in deep space.

The delicate-looking clouds in the Lagoon Nebula are sculpted by the intense radiation from hot young stars.

The whirls of hydrogen gas are slowly collapsing to form stars, whose bright ultraviolet rays illuminate the surrounding gas in a distinctive shade of red.

The wispy tendrils and crashing wave-like features are caused by ultraviolet radiation's ability to erode and disperse the gas and dust into the distinctive shapes that are visible in the image.

Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys captured the dramatic view of the Lagoon Nebula.

The Lagoon Nebula is located more than 4,000 light-years away from Earth, in the constellation Sagittarius (the Archer). It is a vast stellar nursery that stretches about 100 light-years wide. One light-year is the distance light travels in one year, about 6 trillion miles (9.7 trillion kilometers).

This hotbed of star formation earned its name because of a wide, lagoon-shaped dust lane that crosses the glowing gas of the nebula. The structure is prominent in wide-field images, but cannot be seen in this new close-up.

In recent years, astronomers probing the secrets of the Lagoon Nebula have found the first unambiguous proof that star formation by accretion of matter from the gas cloud is ongoing in this region.

Young stars that are still surrounded by an accretion disk will occasionally shoot out long wisps of matter from their poles.

Evidence of these jets, which are called Herbig-Haro objects, have been found in the Lagoon Nebula in the last five years, which provides strong support for astronomers' theories about star formation in such hydrogen-rich regions.

The Lagoon Nebula has been observed by astronomers for centuries, so the new Hubble photo is the latest in a long line of observations. In the 18th century, French astronomer Charles Messier included the object in his famous astronomical catalogue, dubbing the nebula with an alternate name: Messier 8.

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