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Shock! Hubble telescope traces collisions in 'Running Man' nebula

Running Man Nebula
Shock waves dominate this view of HH 45, a part of the Running Man nebula. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Bally (University of Colorado at Boulder); Processing: Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America) (Image credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Bally (University of Colorado at Boulder); Processing: Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America))

Any parent of newborns know just how powerful even small things are.

The same is true in space, where baby stars in a section of a nebula, or gas cloud, create a series a powerful shockwaves visible in a new Hubble Space Telescope image.

Hubble was on the hunt for how young stars influence their environment, and this image of Herbig-Haro (HH) 45 gives abundant evidence. (To go all "Inception" for a moment, this object is embedded in a nebula called NGC 1977, which itself is part of the larger "Running Man" set of three nebulas. So you can see this is a rather complex neighborhood in which the stars are growing up.)

Related: The best Hubble Space Telescope images of all time!

In HH45, what we see here is a rare manifestation of a nebula that happens after a newborn star spews hot gas, NASA noted. This activity "collides with the gas and dust around it at hundreds of miles per second, creating bright shock waves," agency personnel wrote in a statement.

The Hubble image shows two sets of ionized gases glowing as the collision strips away charged electrons from their atoms. Blue shows ionized oxygen, while purple indicates ionized magnesium. "Researchers were particularly interested in these elements because they can be used to identify shocks and ionization fronts," NASA said.

Hubble is coming back online from a synchronization glitch that occurred on Oct. 23 and sent its science instruments into safe mode. But while Hubble personnel get its instruments back to normal, there's lots of work available from previous investigations. 

The 31-year-old observatory was last serviced in person in 2009 and has not been visited by astronauts since the space shuttle retired in 2011, due to inaccessibility with current spacecraft.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a contributing writer for Space.com since 2012. As a proud Trekkie and Canadian, she tackles topics like spaceflight, diversity, science fiction, astronomy and gaming to help others explore the universe. Elizabeth's on-site reporting includes two human spaceflight launches from Kazakhstan, and embedded reporting from a simulated Mars mission in Utah. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, and a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University. Her latest book, NASA Leadership Moments, is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday.