'Orion's Fireplace': Flame Nebula is ablaze with color in stunning new image

The Flame Nebula rings in the New Year from the constellation Orion in a blazing new photo from the European Southern Observatory (ESO). 

In the new telescope view, the nebula, nicknamed "Orion's fireplace," looks like an inferno, but it's actually a colorful cloud of interstellar dust and gas and a nursery for new star formation. The cluster of young stars at the center of this emission nebula emit high-energy radiation that causes the surrounding gases to glow brightly, according to a statement from the ESO

"As astronomers like to say, whenever there is a new telescope or instrument around, observe Orion: there will always be something new and interesting to discover!" Thomas Stanke, a former ESO astronomer and lead author of a new study on the region, said in the statement. 

Related: Spectacular photos of nebulas in deep space

This new image from ESO's Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) radio telescope captures the Flame Nebula, which is the large cosmic feature on the left, and its surroundings within the Orion Constellation. (Image credit: ESO/Th. Stanke & ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit)

The Flame Nebula is located in the Orion constellation, one of the most famous regions in the sky as one of the most active stellar nurseries near Earth. The constellation is home to the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, which is located between 1,300 and 1,600 light-years away from Earth's neighborhood and where new stars and planets form, according to the statement. 

Despite the Flame Nebula's fiery appearance, these clouds are actually very cold, with temperatures just a few tens of degrees above absolute zero, which is equivalent to about minus 459 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 273 degrees Celsius). The new image was taken using the SuperCam instrument on the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) radio telescope, which is located at the Llano de Chajnantor Observatory in the Atacama desert in northern Chile and operated by the ESO.

In the new image, the Flame Nebula is the large formation on the left. The image also features other cosmic objects, including reflection nebulas NGC 2071 and NGC 2023, which reflect the light of nearby stars, and the iconic Horsehead Nebula, located in the top right, above NGC 2023. The team also identified a new, small, almost circular cosmic cloud, which they have named the Cow Nebula, according to the statement. 

The APEX instrument observed the radio waves emitted by carbon monoxide (CO) in the Orion clouds as part of the APEX Large CO Heterodyne Orion Legacy Survey (ALCOHOLS), which is aimed at mapping large gas clouds that give birth to new stars. 

"The different colors indicate the velocity of the gas," ESO officials wrote in the statement. "The Flame Nebula and its surroundings are moving away from us, with the red clouds in the background receding faster than the yellow ones in the foreground."

The new research is described in a paper that was accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics on Jan. 3.

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Samantha Mathewson
Contributing Writer

Samantha Mathewson joined Space.com as an intern in the summer of 2016. She received a B.A. in Journalism and Environmental Science at the University of New Haven, in Connecticut. Previously, her work has been published in Nature World News. When not writing or reading about science, Samantha enjoys traveling to new places and taking photos! You can follow her on Twitter @Sam_Ashley13.