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Orion Unveiled: Spitzer Telescope Spies Nebula’s Infrared Secrets

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.
(Image: © NASA/JPL-Caltech/S.T. Megeaty (Univ. of Toledo,OH).)

The SpitzerSpace Telescope has taken an unprecedented look at the wispy Orion nebulato find a cornucopia of stars and dust with the recipe build planets.

Spitzer's infraredeye found some 2,300 disks of planet-forming material that were either toosmall or distant to be seen by most traditional telescopes scanning Orion inthe visiblerange of the spectrum.

"When Ifirst got a look at theimage, I was immediately struck by the intricate structure in thenebulosity, and in particular, the billowing clouds of the gigantic ringextending from the Orion nebula," said astronomer Tom Megeath,of the University of Toledo, in astatement.

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

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

Launchedin August 2003 as the Space Infrared Telescope (SIRTF), Spitzer was rechristenedin honor of the late scientist Lyman Spitzer, Jr., who first suggested placingtelescopes in orbit to escape interference from the Earth's atmosphere in the1940s.

Perched inthe sword of the easily recognizable constellationOrion and backlit by four bright stars known as theTrapezium, the Orion nebula is one of the most observed deep-sky objects. Thenebula sits about 1,450 light-years from Earth and is the nearest stellarfactory to our home planet, making it a convenient laboratory for starevolution researchers.

"Most starsform 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.

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