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NASA's Hubble Telescope Snaps Iconic Horsehead Nebula in Infrared Light (Video)

First Posted: Apr 19, 2013 11:36 AM EDT

The famed, Horsehead Nebula looks like a vaporous cloud of dust, rising in waves of interstellar foam within the vastness of space. Now, astronomers have used NASA's Hubble Space Telescope to capture the iconic nebula in new, infrared light.

The Horsehead Nebula was first discovered more than a century ago. Since then, it has graced astronomy books and has become a favorite target for both amateur and professional astronomers. Merely a shadow in optical light, it blooms in rich colors and seems ethereal at infrared wavelengths. Set against the rich tapestry of the Milky Way stars and distant galaxies, it's certainly a sight to behold.

Nebulae are interstellar clouds of dust, hydrogen, helium and other ionized gases. In these regions, the gas, dust and other materials tend to "clump" together to form larger masses. This, in turn, can attract further matter and eventually help form stars.

The nebula itself is actually part of the Orion Molecular Cloud, which is located about 1,500 light-years away in the constellation Orion. The cloud contains well-known objects such as the Great Orion Nebula (M42), the Flame Nebula and Barnard's Loop. It's one of the nearest and most easily photographed regions of space where massive stars are being formed.

In the image, the nebula is illuminated by Sigma Orionis, a young five-year start system just out of view. Along the top of the nebula's ridge, two fledgling stars peek out from their now-exposed nurseries.

Yet the Horsehead Nebula may not be around for much longer--relatively speaking. Scientists have found that the harsh, ultraviolet glare from one of the bright stars nearby is slowly evaporating the nebula. Gas clouds surrounding it have already dissipated, though the tip of the jutting pillar in the nebula contains a slightly higher density of hydrogen and helium, laced with dust. This pillar casts a shadow that protects the material behind it from being stripped away by the intense stellar radiation.

Want to see a video of the nebula? Check it out below, originally appearing here.

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