The Orion Nebula in Infrared

Orion nebula 800-600The Orion nebula is featured in this image from the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The constellation Orion is prominent in the night sky from December through April. The nebula (aka Messier 42 or M42) is in Orion’s sword which hangs from his famous belt of three stars. The star cluster embedded in the nebula appears to be a single fuzzy star to the naked eye.

The Maya of Mesoamerica envisioned the lower portion of Orion, what we call his belt and feet, as being the hearthstones of creation, similar to the triangular three-stone hearth at the center of traditional Maya homes. The Orion nebula, lying at the center of the triangle, was seen by the Maya as the cosmic fire of creation surrounded by smoke. That turns out to be an apt metaphor. The nebula is an enormous cloud of dust and gas where new stars are being born. It is one of the closest nurseries of star formation to the Earth and, therefore, provides astronomers with their best view of stellar formation.

This picture spans more than six times the width of the full moon, covering a region nearly 100 light-years across. The green stuff surrounding the nebula is interstellar dust. Color in this image represents specific infrared wavelengths. Blue represents light emitted at around 3.4 µm wavelength, and cyan represents 4.6 µm, both of which are generated mostly by hot stars. Relatively cooler objects, such as the dust of the nebulae, appear green and red. Green represents 12 µm light, and red represents 22 µm light.

Image Credit: NASA