A sparkling spray of stars

December 16, 2008

NGC 2264 lies about 2600 light-years from Earth in the obscure constellation of Monoceros, the Unicorn, not far from the more familiar figure of Orion, the Hunter. The image shows a region of space about 30 light-years across.

William Herschel discovered this fascinating object during his great sky surveys in the late 18th century. He first noticed the bright cluster in January 1784 and the brightest part of the visually more elusive smudge of the glowing gas clouds at Christmas nearly two years later. The cluster is very bright and can easily be seen with binoculars. With a small telescope (whose lenses will turn the view upside down) the stars resemble the glittering lights on a Christmas tree. The dazzling star at the top is even bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye. It is a massive multiple star system that only emerged from the dust and gas a few million years ago.

As well as the cluster there are many interesting and curious structures in the gas and dust. At the bottom of the frame, the dark triangular feature is the evocative Cone Nebula, a region of molecular gas flooded by the harsh light of the brightest cluster members. The region to the right of the brightest star has a curious, fur-like texture that has led to the name Fox Fur Nebula.

Much of the image appears red because the huge gas clouds are glowing under the intense ultra-violet light coming from the energetic hot young stars. The stars themselves appear blue as they are hotter, younger and more massive than our own Sun. Some of this blue light is scattered by dust, as can be seen occurring in the upper part of the image.

This intriguing region is an ideal laboratory for studying how stars form. The entire area shown here is just a small part of a vast cloud of molecular gas that is in the process of forming the next generation of stars. Besides the feast of objects in this picture there are many interesting objects hidden behind the murk of the nebulosity. In the region between the tip of the Cone Nebula and the brightest star at the top of the picture there are several stellar birthing grounds where young stars are forming. There is even evidence of the intense stellar winds from these youthful embryos blasting out from the hidden stars in the making.

This picture of NGC 2264, including the Christmas Tree Cluster, was created from images taken with the Wide Field Imager (WFI), a specialised astronomical camera attached to the 2.2-metre Max-Planck Society/ESO telescope at the La Silla observatory in Chile. Located nearly 2400 m above sea level, in the mountains of the Atacama Desert, ESO's La Silla enjoys some of the clearest and darkest skies on the whole planet, making the site ideally suited for studying the farthest depths of the Universe. To make this image, the WFI stared at the cluster for more than ten hours through a series of specialist filters to build up a full colour image of the billowing clouds of fluorescing hydrogen gas.
-end-


ESO

Related Cluster Articles from Brightsurf:

Image release: Galaxies in the Perseus Cluster
New VLA images show how the crowded environment of a cluster of galaxies affects the individual galaxies, helping astronomers better understand some of the complex details of such an environment.

Is it one or two species? The case of the cluster anemones
Their scientific name is ''Parazoanthus axinellae'' and they are among the most fascinating corals of the Mediterranean Sea.

Discovered: Remnant of ancient globular cluster that's "the last of its kind"
A team of astronomers discovered a stellar stream composed of the remnants of an ancient globular cluster that was torn apart by the Milky Way's gravity 2 billion years ago, when Earth's most-complex lifeforms were single-celled organisms.

Stellar fireworks celebrate birth of giant cluster
Astronomers created a stunning new image showing celestial fireworks in star cluster G286.21+0.17.

Resistance to immunosurveillance favors cluster cancer metastasis
Researchers at Baylor College of Medicine show that circulating cancer cell clusters are more resistant to NK-cell mediated destruction than single cancer cells, leading to more cluster metastasis.

Age of NGC 6652 globular cluster specified
Senior Research Associate Margarita Sharina (Special Astrophysical Observatory) and Associate Professor Vladislav Shimansky (Kazan Federal University) studied the globular cluster NGC 6652.4.05957 and found out that its age is close to 13.6 billion years, which makes it one of the oldest objects in the Milky Way.

Rhythmicity of cluster headache
Although it is known that CH patients exhibit circadian rhythmicity of attacks, new data add a new feature with regard to the rhythmicity of attacks throughout the disease course.

Hubble snaps a crowded cluster
This sparkling burst of stars is Messier 75. It is a globular cluster: a spherical collection of stars bound together by gravity.

Ushering in ultrafast cluster electronics
A new computational method can help fast track the development of tiny, ultrafast electronic devices made from small clusters of molecules.

Aging a flock of stars in the Wild Duck Cluster
The way they move belies the true ages of the almost 3,000 stars populating one of the richest star clusters known.

Read More: Cluster News and Cluster Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.