The Horsehead Nebula is a dark nebula in Orion constellation. The nebula is located just to the south of the star Alnitak, which is farthest east on Orion’s Belt, and is part of the much larger Orion Molecular Cloud Complex.
On top of this page you will see how Europe’s Herschel space telescope has imaged one of the best Horsehead Nebula – and its environs. The distinctively shaped molecular gas cloud is sited some 1,300 light-years from Earth in the Constellation Orion.
The Horsehead Nebula (also known as Barnard 33 in emission nebula IC 434). The nebula was first recorded in 1888 by Williamina Fleming on photographic plate B2312 taken at the Harvard College Observatory.
The red or pinkish glow originates from hydrogen gas predominantly behind the nebula, ionized by the nearby bright star Sigma Orionis. The darkness of the Horsehead is caused mostly by thick dust, although the lower part of the Horsehead’s neck casts a shadow to the left. Streams of gas leaving the nebula are funneled by a strong magnetic field.
Together, these two great facilities give scientists a much broader insight into what is taking place in this familiar patch of the heavens.
“You need images at all scales and at all wavelengths in astronomy in order to understand the big picture and the small detail,” said Prof Matt Griffin, the principal investigator on Herschel’s SPIRE instrument.
“In this new Herschel view, the Horsehead looks like a little feature – a pimple. In reality, of course, it is a very large entity in its own right, but in this great sweep of a picture from Herschel you can see that the nebula is set within an even larger, molecular-cloud complex where there is a huge amount of material and a great range of conditions,” the Cardiff University, UK, researcher told BBC News.
To celebrate its 23rd year in orbit, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has released a stunning new image of one of the most distinctive objects in our skies: the Horsehead Nebula. This image shows the nebula in a whole new light, capturing plumes of gas in the infrared and revealing a beautiful, delicate structure that is normally obscured by dust.
This nebula is a very well-known object and a popular target for observations, most of which show the Horsehead as a dark cloud silhouetted against a background of glowing gas. This new image shows the same region in infrared light, which has longer wavelengths than visible light and can pierce through the dusty material that usually obscures the nebula’s inner regions. The result is a rather ethereal and fragile-looking structure, made of delicate folds of gas — very different to the nebula’s appearance in visible light.
We cannot see infrared radiation with our eyes or with standard cameras, which are designed to detect optical light. To observe these objects, we have infrared-sensitive telescopes or instruments — for example, Hubble’s high-resolution Wide Field Camera 3, fitted in 2009. Hubble’s pairing of infrared sensitivity and unparalleled resolution offers a tantalising hint of what we will be able to achieve with the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, set for launch in 2018.