In run-up to Halloween, ESA jokes about “spooky sight” in space. Sense of humour aside, the view is spectacular
— ESA Science (@esascience) October 30, 2017
Made by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, this picture is not about what is there, but about what is not there. Called by ESA “a spooky sight” which
“resembles fog lit by a streetlamp swirling around a curiously shaped hole”
it might also call to mind cigarette smoke, curving away with the breath that exhaled it. The ‘fog’ or ‘smoke’ is actually dust and gas, lit up by the star, while the ‘hole’ is actually an empty patch of space.
The star that pierces through the ‘fog’ is V380 Orionis, a bright, young star, JUST LIKE YOU. It is 3.5 times the mass, and with its surface temperature of about 10 000ºC, two times as hot as our Sun. Literally white hot. So young it is still surrounded by a cloud of material left over from its formation. Not emitting any visible light of its own, the material in the area pictured can only be seen because of the light from the star. In astronomy this is known as a ‘reflection nebula’ – this is NGC 1999.
When first observed, it was assumed that the ‘hole in space’ was a very cold, dense cloud of gas and dust, so thick as to be able to block all light behind it. Generally, such globules are thought to be small cocoons of forming stars. However, research by ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory suggested something different. Any hints of star formation should have been visible at infra-red wavelengths, but the complete absence of any such observations leads astronomers to believe it a truly empty patch of sky.
NGC 1999 is the green-tinged cloud towards the top of the image. From this image, a combination of images made by ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory, it became clear that a hole had been blown in the side of NGC 1999 by the jets and winds of gas from the young stellar objects in that particular region of space. The powerful radiation from a nearby mature star may also have helped to clear the hole.
Space might be filled with wondrous things – but if you ever need to clear your head, you know where to look.