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Monday, 4 October 2010

A lightning tour of the Carina nebula...

All links are numbered, and listed in order at the end.

Above: A map of the Carina nebula. Image courtesy of NASA/ESA/European Southern Observatory.

I'm a sucker for a beautiful nebula. That said, I will try to keep this brief. Study of [1]star forming regions is one way by which we learn more about our own solar systems history, and studying the range of stellar and planetary systems out there gives our solar system context.

The [2]Carina nebula lies 7500 light years away in the direction of the constellation Carina. For a mind breaking zoomable version of the image above, [3]follow this link. At 10 parsecs across it is a tumultuous ocean of sculpted gas, dust and ice particles. One of the most active star forming regions locally, it is home to the trunks of '[4]pillars of creation', sculpted by hard radiation from massive stars, wider than our solar system and light years tall.......

Image above: a light year long pillar of gas and dust, with a ferocious young star attempting to break through the tip, sending out beams of high energy particles. Image courtesy of NASA.

......[5]dark Bok globules, cocooning nascent stars and their attended disks of unformed matter.....

Image above: A large Bok Globule, a cocoon for emerging star systems, named with odd aptness 'the caterpillar' by astronomers. Image courtesy of NASA.

......[6]Wolf Ryet stars, hurling out stellar winds so strong they make the edge of the star fuzzy, and hard radiation by the bucket....

Image above, scattered amongst their better behaved companions, hard radiation and particles from Wolf-rayet stars excite the gases of the nebula. Image courtesy of the European Southern Observatory

.....[7]open clusters, of young stars still huddled together against the interstellar darkness........

Image above: An open cluster of young stars set against within the Carina nebula. Image courtesy of ESA.

....... the 7 lightyear wide, dark, [8]cold molecular cloud mass of the keyhole nebula.....

Image above: The Keyhole nebula, cold dust and gas set against the brighter, vaster Carina nebula Image courtesy of NASA, JPL.

........the collosal [9]hypergiant star HD93129A, less than a million years old, brighter than five million suns, and a stunning 52000 degrees kelvin in temperature.......

Image Left: The relative sizes of our sun and the nightmareish intensity of hypergiant HD93129A. No contest.

Image coutesy of the University of Oregon

.....and the appropriatly named [10]homunculus nebula- two small, intensly bright, lobes of ionised gas, spat into space at close to a thousand kilometers per second in [11]an eruption seen from Earth in 1843.....

Image above: The enigmatic Homunculus Nebula, birthed in incredible violence. Image courtesy of NASA. its denizens and parents the [13]Eta Carina multiple star system- not just a series of giant furnace amongst giant furnaces, but an unstable, gibbering wreck of a system to boot. Exactly what is going on within the expanding shockwaves is hard to discerne, but the 1840s event was close to being a supernova- the warring Eta Carina familly is literally tearing itself apart as we watch.

Whatever the event that birthed the homunculus nebula was, in 1841 Eta Carina became the second brightest star in the sky- despite being 7491 lighteyears further from Earth than [14]Sirius, the brightest.

How do we know these things, and get these beautifull images?

A big source of information is the good ol' [15]Hubble Space Observatory, along with occasional help from other space telescopes, followed closely by the [16]European Sourthern Observatory which has produced a lot of spectacular nebula images. Many of the stunning images are false-colour interpretations of frequencies of light our mere human eyes can't see. The detailed story of what is going on comes from years of patient research and observation, coupled with masses of high end computer modelling, and even crosses over into areas of particle physics.
And all of these stunners are the end product of many many hours of telescope exposure, image processing, and planning, all at the mercy of one softtware glitch or hardware breakdown. So enjoy these, and spare a thought for the astronomers whose fascination with the universe brings them down to us!

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