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Picture of the Day - The Horsehead Nebula

Published by Matt on Wed Jul 7, 2010 2:02 pm via: ESO
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The Horsehead Nebula is a dark nebula in the constellation Orion. The nebula is located just below (to the south of) Alnitak, the star farthest left on Orion’s Belt, and is part of the much larger Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. Using Orion’s belt, we can locate Sirius, the brightest star in the sky.

A reproduction of a composite colour image of the Horsehead Nebula and its immediate surroundings. Credit: ESO

A reproduction of a composite colour image of the Horsehead Nebula and its immediate surroundings. Credit: ESO

The Horsehead Nebula is approximately 1500 light years from Earth. It is one of the most identifiable nebulae because of the shape of its swirling cloud of dark dust and gases, which is similar to that of a horse’s head when viewed from Earth. The shape was first noticed in 1888 by Williamina Fleming on photographic plate B2312 taken at the Harvard College Observatory.

The red 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. Bright spots in the Horsehead Nebula’s base are young stars just in the process of forming.

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