OXON HILL, MARYLAND The constellation Orion, the hunter, stamps one of the brightest and most recognisable patterns of stars into the northern sky. But the faint jewel sparkling in the middle of Orion’s sword is no ordinary stellar gem—it’s a huge, blustery nebula that’s furiously birthing stars. Now, you can fly through Orion’s gleaming cosmic cradle in 3-D.
By combining visible and infrared images taken by the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, and adding a sprinkle of Hollywood stardust, a team led by Frank Summers of the Space Telescope Science Institute crafted this three-minute journey through the faraway cloud. It takes you through the gossamer shell of the nebula and into the cavernous region where stars are born, and where pinpricks of light cluster like eggs in a nest.
Located some 1,344 light-years away, the Orion Nebula can be seen by the unaided eye. Still, it’s not every day the cosmos can be experienced in three dimensions like this. After all, even the most magnificent, evocative images from our best telescopes are flat.
The nebula might also be the home of two rogue planets that, instead of orbiting a star, are dancing around one another, astronomers announced today at the 231st American Astronomical Society meeting in Maryland.
Scientists discovered the strange pair while taking a census of the nebula’s low-mass objects. Many of these puny objects, identified by the water vapor condensing in their cool atmospheres, are brown dwarfs—failed stars that never collected enough material to ignite nuclear fusion in their cores.
While searching for brown dwarfs, the team also netted a few objects that appear to be more like planets than nuclearly bankrupt stars. Puzzlingly, two of these appear to orbit one another, just as Pluto and its large moon Charon do in our solar system. The difference is that the worlds—if they are indeed planets—don’t seem to have a stellar parent.
“We also have this very peculiar object,” said Giovanni Strampelli of the Space Telescope Science Institute. “It looks like a planet-planet system without any star close to it.”
Although the observations are preliminary, if the objects really are planets, they could be the first confirmed system of their kind.
Alas, this perplexing pair can’t be seen in the new fly-through, but there are plenty of stellar wonders in store for anyone who makes the virtual trek into the dazzling nebula.