Orion Unveiled: Spitzer Telescope Spies Nebula’s Infrared Secrets
This infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion nebula, the closest massive star-making factory to Earth.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S.T. Megeaty (Univ. of Toledo,OH).

The Spitzer Space Telescope has taken an unprecedented look at the wispy Orion nebula to find a cornucopia of stars and dust with the recipe build planets.

Spitzer's infrared eye found some 2,300 disks of planet-forming material that were either too small or distant to be seen by most traditional telescopes scanning Orion in the visible range of the spectrum.

"When I first got a look at the image, I was immediately struck by the intricate structure in the nebulosity, and in particular, the billowing clouds of the gigantic ring extending from the Orion nebula," said astronomer Tom Megeath, of the University of Toledo, in a statement.

Megeath, who led the Spitzer research at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), and his colleagues combined about 10,000 images taken by the space-based telescope's Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) to build their comprehensive look at the 30 light-year wide Orion nebula.

The image also features about 200 baby stars too young to develop disks of their own. Interstellar dust swirls through Spitzer's view, painting the swath of sky in a vivid pink.

Launched in August 2003 as the Space Infrared Telescope (SIRTF), Spitzer was rechristened in honor of the late scientist Lyman Spitzer, Jr., who first suggested placing telescopes in orbit to escape interference from the Earth's atmosphere in the 1940s.

Perched in the sword of the easily recognizable constellation Orion and backlit by four bright stars known as the Trapezium, the Orion nebula is one of the most observed deep-sky objects. The nebula sits about 1,450 light-years from Earth and is the nearest stellar factory to our home planet, making it a convenient laboratory for star evolution researchers.

"Most stars form in crowded environments like Orion, so if we want to understand how [they] form, we need to understand the Orion nebula star cluster," said CfA researcher Lori Allen, who is working with Megeath on a long-term study of the nebula.