• The Prawn Nebula

Prawn Nebula

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The Prawn Nebula lies at a distance of 6,000 lightyears from Earth, with a span of about 250 lightyears across, and was discovered by the American astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard around 1900.

It is a lunar nursery that contains a huge number of scorching, luminous, young stars, formed out of the surrounding gas. These stars include two large, hot, blue-white giants belonging to the rare spectral class O-type stars. These stars tend to burn out very quickly, and therefore have a comparatively short lifespan (only a million years or so) before ending their lives in supernova explosions then collapsing into either neutron stars or black holes. (See footnote below.)

This stunning image captures the dynamic glow of the nebula as charged hydrogen gas produces large cloud masses. As ultraviolet energy is emitted from the infant stars, it lashes the nearby hydrogen and energises it prompting the release of light, with hydrogen’s distinct reddish tinge.

Taken using the 2.2-meter VLT Survey Telescope (the largest telescope in the world designed for surveying the sky in visible light) at the European Southern Observatory in Chile, this may well be the sharpest and most detailed picture ever taken of this nebula.

The Prawn Nebula is extremely faint, and most of the light emitting from the nebula is in wavelengths not visible to the human eye; one of the reasons why this image is so striking and evocative.

This is why I find astronomy so utterly compelling – what else is out there that we cannot readily see – what other beautiful and astonishing discoveries will be made!

Footnote: A neutron star typically has between 1.4 and 4 times as much mass as our own Sun. Unbelievably, this is squeezed into a volume only about twenty kilometres in diameter, resulting in an exceptionally high density.

Black holes, one of the most mysterious objects in the universe, is a volume of space having a gravitational field so powerful that no matter or radiation can escape. Astronomers estimate there are anywhere from 10 million to a billion stellar black holes, with masses roughly three times that of the Sun.

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Credit: ESO. Acknowledgement: Martin Pugh