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Sighting Orion

— One of the best-known constellations in the sky is Orion the Hunter, which starts showing off its glittering belt just about this time of year in predawn skies.

The Orion Nebula is also one of the best-known targets for astronomers, serving as a popular pin-up for the Hubble Space Telescope.

Now another orbiting observatory, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, has provided new infrared views of the Orion Nebula.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / U. of Toledo
Tendrils of interstellar dust show up as
shades of pink in the Spitzer Space
Telescope's view of the Orion Nebula.


Infrared observations are particularly good for peering into clouds of dust that optical wavelengths can't penetrate - the very places where stars and planets are born. The Orion Nebula is one of the closest star-forming regions in our cosmic neighborhood, about 1,450 light-years away, and that's why it's such a popular target for scientists studying cosmic origins.

"When I first got a look at the image, I was immediately struck by the intricate structure in the nebulosity, and in particular, the billowing clouds of the gigantic ring extending from the Orion Nebula," the University of Toledo's Tom Megeath said in a news release issued Monday by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Spitzer spotted nearly 2,300 planet-forming disks within the nebula's wisps of warm dust, which are colored pink in a color-coded image.

"The Orion image shows that many stars also appear to form in isolation, or in groups of just a few stars," John Stauffer of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology said in a NASA/Caltech news release. "These new data may help us to determine the type of environment in which our sun formed."

Megeath and a colleague, Lori Allen of the Center for Astrophysics, are working on a long-term, multiwavelength study of Orion.

"Most stars form in crowded environments like Orion, so if we want to understand how stars form, we need to understand the Orion nebula star cluster," Allen explained.

Orion is becoming more famous in another context as well, relating to NASA's space exploration plans. Last month, the CollectSpace Web site reported that Orion would be the name given to NASA's future spaceship (the so-called "Apollo on steroids"), and last week, CollectSpace followed up by publishing what may well be NASA's logo for Project Orion. None of this is official yet, but Orion's status in NASA's new vision seems to be all but assured.

Update for 3:40 a.m. Aug. 16: An eagle-eyed reader corrected my misimpression that the Hubble Space Telescope's Pillars of Creation came from the Orion Nebula. It was actually the Eagle Nebula. Oh, well, at least it gave me a chance to link to that way-cool picture. I've fixed the erroneous reference - thanks, AstroMonkey!