VLT Images the Horsehead Nebula
25 januari 2002
A new, high-resolution colour image of one of the most photographed celestial objects, the famous "Horsehead Nebula" (IC 434) in Orion, has been produced from data stored in the VLT Science Archive. The original CCD frames were obtained in February 2000 with the FORS2 multi-mode instrument at the 8.2-m VLT KUEYEN telescope on Paranal (Chile). The comparatively large field-of-view of the FORS2 camera is optimally suited to show this extended object and its immediate surroundings in impressive detail.
A spectacular object
The image shows the famous "Horsehead Nebula", which is situated in the Orion molecular cloud complex. Its official name is Barnard 33 and it is a dust protrusion in the southern region of the dense dust cloud Lynds 1630, on the edge of the HII region IC 434 . The distance to the region is about 1400 light-years (430 pc).
This beautiful colour image was produced from three images obtained with the multi-mode FORS2 instrument at the second VLT Unit Telescope ( KUEYEN ), some months after it had "First Light", cf. eso9944. The image files were extracted from the VLT Science Archive Facility and the photo constitutes a fine example of the subsequent use of such valuable data. Details about how the photo was made and some weblinks to other pictures are available below.
The comparatively large field-of-view of the FORS2 camera (nearly 7 x 7 arcmin 2) and the detector resolution (0.2 arcsec/pixel) make this instrument optimally suited for imaging of this extended object and its immediate surroundings. There is obviously a wealth of detail, and scientific information can be derived from the colours shown in this photo. Three predominant colours are seen in the image: red from the hydrogen (H-alpha) emission from the HII region; brown for the foreground obscuring dust; and blue-green for scattered starlight.
The blue-green regions of the Horsehead Nebula correspond to regions not shadowed from the light from the stars in the H II region to the top of the picture and scatter stellar radiation towards the observer; these are thus `mountains' of dust . The Horse's `mane' is an area in which there is less dust along the line-of-sight and the background (H-alpha) emission from ionized hydrogen atoms can be seen through the foreground dust.
A chaotic area
At the high resolution of this image the Horsehead appears very chaotic with many wisps and filaments and diffuse dust . At the top of the figure there is a bright rim separating the dust from the HII region. This is an `ionization front' where the ionizing photons from the HII region are moving into the cloud, destroying the dust and the molecules and heating and ionizing the gas.
Dust and molecules can exist in cold regions of interstellar space which are shielded from starlight by very large layers of gas and dust. Astronomers refer to elongated structures, such as the Horsehead, as `elephant trunks' (never mind the zoological confusion!) which are common on the boundaries of HII regions. They can also be seen elsewhere in Orion - another well-known example is the pillars of M16 (the "Eagle Nebula") made famous by the fine HST image - a new infrared view by VLT and ISAAC of this area was published last month, cf. ESO Press Release eso0137.
Such structures are only temporary as they are being constantly eroded by the expanding region of ionized gas and are destroyed on timescales of typically a few thousand years. The Horsehead as we see it today will therefore not last forever and minute changes will become observable as the time passes.
To the east of the Horsehead (at the bottom of this image) there is ample evidence for star formation in the Lynds 1630 dark cloud . Here, the reflection nebula NGC 2023 surrounds the hot B-type star HD 37903 and some Herbig Haro objects are found which represent high-speed gas outflows from very young stars with masses of around a solar mass.
The HII region to the west (top of picture) is ionized by the strong radiation from the bright star Sigma Orionis, located just below the southernmost star in Orion's Belt. The chain of dust and molecular clouds are part of the Orion A and B regions (also known as Orion's `sword').
Technical information about the photos
ESO Press Photo eso0202a was produced from three images, obtained on February 1, 2000, with the FORS2 multi-mode instrument at the 8.2-m KUEYEN Unit Telescope and extracted from the VLT Science Archive Facility. The frames were obtained in the B-band (600 sec exposure; wavelength 429 nm; FWHM 88 nm; here rendered as blue), V-band (300 sec; 554 nm; 112 nm; green) and R-band (120 sec; 655 nm; 165 nm; red) The original pixel size is 0.2 arcsec. The photo shows the full field recorded in all three colours, approximately 6.5 x 6.7 arcmin 2. The seeing was about 0.75 arcsec. ESO Press Photo eso0202b is an enlargement of a smaller area, measuring 3.8 x 4.1 arcmin 2. North is to the left and east is down (the usual orientation for showing this object). The frames were recorded with a TK2048 SITe CCD and the ESO-FIERA Controller, built by the Optical Detector Team (ODT). The images were prepared by Cyril Cavadore (ESO-ODT), by means of Prism software.
The Horsehead Nebula is a favourite object for amateur astrophotographers and large numbers of images are available on the WWW. Due to its significant extension and the limited field-of-view of some professional telescopes, fewer photographs are available from today's front-line facilities, except from specialized wide-field instruments like Schmidt telescopes, etc.
The links below point to a number of prominent photos obtained elsewhere and some contain further useful links to other sites with more information about this splendid sky area.
- "Astronomy Picture of the Day" : http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/ap971025.html
- Hubble Heritage image : http://heritage.stsci.edu/2013/12/index.html
- INT Wide-Field image : http://www.ing.iac.es/PR/science/horsehead.htm
- NOT image : http://www.not.iac.es/general/photos/astronomical/milkyway/
- NOAO Wide-Field image : http://www.noao.edu/outreach/press/pr01/ir0101.html
- Bill Arnett's site : http://astro.nineplanets.org/twn/b33x.html