The Nebula: a Violent, Spectacular Stellar Spectacle


As astronomers can observe, young stars can emanate a violent, yet beautiful spectacle of hydrogen explosions and blustery stellar winds among the vast blackness of space. As pictured in the photo above, released by the European South Observatory (ESO), gusts of radiation pour energy into the hydrogen clouds causing charged ions to glow the magnificent, rosy red. This is the newest photo of the mysterious nebula captured by astronomers using the MPG/ESO 2.2m telescope located at the La Silla Observatory in Chile.

The stellar nursery is located 7,300 light-years from Earth. It is set near the bottom of the Lambda Centauri Nebula, most visible in the southern constellation of Centaurus. Its alternative, colloquial name is the Running Chicken Nebula. This specific gas cloud is known as Gum 41, bearing the name of Australian astronomer Colin Gum who made the initial discovery back in 1955.


This area of the southern sky, the Centaur, in the middle of the Centaurus constellation, is the base for many luminous nebulae. Each of these are associated with young and even newly born stars that are created from hot clouds of hydrogen gas. The remaining hydrogen left over from the creation of these stars is stimulated by the intense radiation causing it to look red. This is a typical color that is found in nearly all star-forming regions of the universe. Another example of this phenomenon is the Lagoon nebula which glows in a very similar shade of bright scarlet.

While the nebula seems to be very dense from afar on Earth, if a spaceship were to travel anywhere near the Gum 41 nebula, it would undoubtedly be impossible to see the bright shades of red as recorded by the Chilean telescope. Notwithstanding the immense size, the nebula is spread out over many light years and would be too thin to see with the human eye up close. This is possibly the reason why the great nebula was not discovered until the middle of the 20th century.

The way in which stars come into being was a mystery to astronomers until only a few decades ago. One of the most popular theories behind star formation was derived from astronomers’ understanding of the formation of our own Sun. They speculated that a nearby star ended its life cycle by a supernova, exploding its mass in a spectacular fashion. The gases blown from the eruption were compressed into a single cloud and then collapsed under its gravity – causing a rotation of the cloud. Due to much more compression and rotation, the Sun came to be a ball of hot plasma interwoven by magnetic fields induced by its core of hot, spinning metal.


However, astronomers now believe that stars are also formed by nebulas. These vast stellar clouds of dust and ionized gas are light years across that contain areas of gravitational collapse that allow for the pressure and rotation needed to form stars. With such a large concentration of the material needed to create the hot, gaseous balls that light the darkness of the void of space, nebulas have been known as hotbeds for newly formed stars.

With the new photos taken of one of the mysteries of the universe, astronomers will be able to further their studies on the creation of stars. The photo from the La Silla Observatory can provide information and insight to others who study the depths of space in search of these bright nebulae. Nonetheless, Gum 41 is only one example of many nebulae that emanate a violent, spectacular spectacle for astronomers to observe and appreciate.

By: Alex Lemieux


Science Daily

National Geographic

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