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Hubble telescope sees a space 'snowman' thousands of light-years away

A Hubble Space Telescope image shows part of the Snowman Nebula, a region filled with warm gas. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Tan (Chalmers University of Technology); Processing; Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America))

A new release from the Hubble telescope's vast archive shares an incredible space "snowman" filled with glowing gas.

The image shows the Snowman Nebula, which is a cloud of gas and dust in deep space. The Hubble Space Telescope's sharp eyes picked up the object from a distance of 6,000 light-years away, and rendered the image in a time exposure since the glow of the gas is very faint.

"Emission nebulas are diffuse clouds of gas that have become so charged by the energy of nearby massive stars that they glow with their own light," NASA said in a statement about the new image.

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

"The radiation from these massive stars strips electrons from the nebula's hydrogen atoms in a process called ionization," the statement continues. "As the energized electrons revert from their higher-energy state to a lower-energy state, they emit energy in the form of light, causing the nebula's gas to glow."

The famed telescope picked up this new image during a survey of massive- and intermediate-size "protostars," or newly forming stars. Hubble used its Wide Field Camera 3 instrument "to look for hydrogen ionized by ultraviolet light from the protostars, jets from the stars, and other features," NASA officials wrote.

A Hubble Space Telescope image shows part of the Snowman Nebula; the region's full context is provided by data from the Digitized Sky Survey. (Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Tan (Chalmers University of Technology), and DSS; Processing; Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America))

Hubble isn't quite working at its best. In late October, a synchronization error with its internal communications forced all five of its science instruments offline. 

The team recovered the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) on Nov. 7, and the same Wide Field Camera 3 responsible for this image on Nov. 21. WFC3 is the most heavily used of Hubble's instruments.

The observatory's other three instruments remain in a protective "safe mode" as ground engineers continue to carefully troubleshoot issues on the 31-year-old observatory. The Hubble team will next address an instrument called the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph, which can observe far-ultraviolet light.

Although astronauts on five different missions visited Hubble to repair and upgrade the observatory, no additional visits are planned; servicing missions relied on NASA's space shuttle program, which ended in 2011.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for Space.com who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is the author or co-author of several books on space exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the same department. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University in Canada, where she began her space-writing career in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level, and for government training schools. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.