Cosmic Nebulas Dazzle in New Space Telescope Photos
An image of the Flaming Star Nebula, taken in infrared light by NASA's WISE space telescope.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

NASA's WISE infrared telescope, which recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of its launch into space, has returned some stunning photos lately.

The new pictures from WISE — short for Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which launched on Dec. 14, 2009 — are dramatic, colorful images of interstellar clouds of gas and dust called nebulas.

The first photo depicts a structure known as the Flaming Star Nebula, which is about 1,500 light-years away in the constellation Auriga. At the nebula's heart is the star AE Aurigae, which appears to be ablaze, hence the name.

AE Aurigae is a so-called runaway star, researchers said. It was likely born in the Trapezium Cluster, in the constellation Orion, but was booted out by a collision with a binary star system about 2.5 million years ago.

The enhanced colors seen in the image represent specific wavelengths of infrared light, which unaided human eyes cannot see. Hot stars scattered throughout the nebula show up as blue and cyan. Glowing gas appears green, while heated-up dust is primarily red, researchers said.

This WISE photo shows the Jellyfish Nebula — also known as IC 443 — which is about 5,000 light-years away from Earth, in the constellation Gemini. The jellyfish shape is a shell surrounding the remnants of a massive star that exploded 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, researchers said.

This huge supernova blast sent out shock waves that heated up surrounding gas and dust, forming the shell, researchers said. The different colors — again, representations of various infrared wavelengths — result from differences in the energy intensity of the shock wave, and light emissions by disparate materials.

This mosaic image features three nebulas that are part of the giant Orion Molecular Cloud, about 1,500 light-years from Earth. The image covers an area of the sky about three times as high and wide as the full moon, researchers said.

The Flame Nebula is the huge, luminous structure in the center of the image. What makes it shine so brightly is Alnitak, the blue star to the right of the central cloud. The Horsehead Nebula is also visible, as a faint bump on the lower-right side of the vertical dust ridge, researchers said.

The third nebula, called NGC 2023, can be seen as a bright circle in the lower half of the image. In the image, blue represents light emitted at 3.4-micron wavelengths, mainly from hot stars. Relatively cooler objects, such as the dust of the nebulas, appear green and red. Green represents 4.6-micron light and red represents 12-micron light, researchers said.

This final photo shows the nebula IC 2944, also known as the Lambda Centauri, or Running Chicken nebula. It's about 5,800 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Centaurus.

The nebula is a stellar nursery, home to a new cluster of stars born from the cloud about 8 million years ago, researchers said. In the picture, blue and cyan represent infrared light with wavelengths of 3.4 and 4.6 microns, which is mostly light from stars. Green and red represent wavelengths of 12 and 22 microns, which is mostly light from warm dust; red signals temperatures lower than green.

The large, green ring-like structure near the middle of the image is about 77 light-years across, researchers said. It's formed by the combined winds of the young stars blowing back the material from which they were born.

Since its launch, the WISE telescope has catalogued hundreds of millions of asteroids, stars and galaxies.

In late September, after covering the sky about 1 1/2 times, WISE ran out of the coolant needed to chill its infrared detectors.

The spacecraft is still scanning the heavens with two of its four detectors, operating under an extended mission called NEOWISE. NEOWISE focuses primarily on comets and asteroids, including near-Earth objects — bodies whose orbits pass relatively close to Earth's orbit around the sun.