Is star AE Aurigae on fire? No. Even though AE Aurigae is named the Flaming Star and the surrounding nebula IC 405 is named the Flaming Star Nebula, and even though the nebula appears to some like a swirling flame, there is no fire. Fire, typically defined as the rapid molecular acquisition of oxygen, happens only when sufficient oxygen is present and is not important in such high-energy, low-oxygen environments such as stars. The bright star AE Aurigae occurs near the center of the Flaming Star Nebula and is so hot it glows blue, emitting light so energetic it knocks electrons away from surrounding gas. When a proton recaptures an electron, light is emitted, as seen in the surrounding emission nebula. Captured here three weeks ago, the Flaming Star Nebula is visible near the composite image's center, between the red Tadpole Nebula on the left and blue-tailed Comet ZTF on the right. The Flaming Star Nebula lies about 1,500 light years distant, spans about 5 light years, and is visible with a small telescope toward the constellation of the Charioteer (Auriga).
Few cosmic vistas excite the imagination like The Great Nebula in Orion. Visible as a faint celestial smudge to the naked-eye, the nearest large star-forming region sprawls across this sharp telescopic image, recorded on a cold January night in dark skies from West Virginia, planet Earth. Also known as M42, the Orion Nebula's glowing gas surrounds hot, young stars. About 40 light-years across, it lies at the edge of an immense interstellar molecular cloud only 1,500 light-years away within the same spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy as the Sun. Along with dusty bluish reflection nebula NGC 1977 and friends near the top of the frame, the eye-catching nebulae represent only a small fraction of our galactic neighborhood's wealth of star-forming material. Within the well-studied stellar nursery, astronomers have also identified what appear to be numerous infant solar systems.
Stars are forming in the Soul of the Queen of Aethopia. More specifically, a large star forming region called the Soul Nebula can be found in the direction of the constellation Cassiopeia, whom Greek mythology credits as the vain wife of a King who long ago ruled lands surrounding the upper Nile river. Also known as Westerhout 5 (W5), the Soul Nebula houses several open clusters of stars, ridges and pillars darkened by cosmic dust, and huge evacuated bubbles formed by the winds of young massive stars. Located about 6,500 light years away, the Soul Nebula spans about 100 light years and is usually imaged next to its celestial neighbor the Heart Nebula (IC 1805). The featured image is a composite of exposures made in different colors: red as emitted by hydrogen gas, yellow as emitted by sulfur, and blue as emitted by oxygen.
Globular star cluster Omega Centauri, also known as NGC 5139, is 15,000 light-years away. The cluster is packed with about 10 million stars
much older than the Sun within a volume about 150 light-years in diameter. It's the largest and brightest of 200 or so known globular clusters that roam the halo of our Milky Way galaxy. Though most star clusters consist of stars with the same age and composition, the enigmatic Omega Cen exhibits the presence of different stellar populations with a spread of ages and chemical abundances. In fact, Omega Cen may be the remnant core of a small galaxy merging with the Milky Way. Omega Centauri's red giant stars (with a yellowish hue) are easy to pick out in this sharp, color telescopic view.
The luminous, hot star Wolf-Rayet 124 (WR 124) is prominent at the center of the James Webb Space Telescope’s composite image combining near-infrared and mid-infrared wavelengths of light. The star displays the characteristic diffraction spikes of Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam), caused by the physical structure of the telescope itself. NIRCam effectively balances the brightness of the star with the fainter gas and dust surrounding it, while Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) reveals the nebula’s structure.
From JWST...Stars and galaxies, in shades of white and reddish orange, are scattered across a dark background. Larger stars resemble snowflakes due to their eight-pointed diffraction spike pattern. The galaxies come in an assortment of sizes and shapes: spirals, arcs, blobs and dots. In the upper right corner, there is a foreground galaxy cluster with a diffuse white glow. Behind the cluster are galaxies that have been magnified, distorted and multiplied due to the sheer mass and gravity of the cluster, an effect called gravitational lensing. One of these magnified galaxies is of note to astronomers. It appears three times in the upper right corner, and each of its appearances is highlighted with a small white box. This galaxy looks like a tiny orange spiral. In all three white boxes, there are other tiny orange or white light sources right next to it.
From JWST...Composite image of the Tarantula Nebula: Royal blue and purple gas clouds interact with red and orange gas clouds, as specks of light and large gleaming stars peek through. The blue and purple patches represent X-ray data from Chandra. The most striking blue cloud is shaped like an upward pointing triangle at the center. Wispy white clouds outline this blue triangle. Inside this frame is a gleaming star with six long, thin spikes. Beside it is a cluster of smaller bright blue specks showing young stars in the nebula. Darker X-ray clouds can be found near the right and left edges of the image. The red and orange gas clouds, which look like roiling fire, represent infrared data from Webb.
By combining images of the iconic Pillars of Creation from two cameras aboard NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, the universe has been framed in its infrared glory. Webb’s near-infrared image was fused with its mid-infrared image, setting this star-forming region ablaze with new details.
Myriad stars are spread throughout the scene. The stars primarily show up in near-infrared light, marking a contribution of Webb’s Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam). Near-infrared light also reveals thousands of newly formed stars – look for bright orange spheres that lie just outside the dusty pillars.
In mid-infrared light, the dust is on full display. The contributions from Webb’s Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) are most apparent in the layers of diffuse, orange dust that drape the top of the image, relaxing into a V. The densest regions of dust are cast in deep indigo hues, obscuring our view of the activities inside the dense pillars.
Dust also makes up the spire-like pillars that extend from the bottom left to the top right. This is one of the reasons why the region is overflowing with stars – dust is a major ingredient of star formation. When knots of gas and dust with sufficient mass form in the pillars, they begin to collapse under their own gravitational attraction, slowly heat up, and eventually form new stars. Newly formed stars are especially apparent at the edges of the top two pillars – they are practically bursting onto the scene.
At the top edge of the second pillar, undulating detail in red hints at even more embedded stars. These are even younger, and are quite active as they form. The lava-like regions capture their periodic ejections. As stars form, they periodically send out supersonic jets that can interact within clouds of material, like these thick pillars of gas and dust. These young stars are estimated to be only a few hundred thousand years old, and will continue to form for millions of years.
Almost everything you see in this scene is local. The distant universe is largely blocked from our view both by the interstellar medium, which is made up of sparse gas and dust located between the stars, and a thick dust lane in our Milky Way galaxy. As a result, the stars take center stage in Webb’s view of the Pillars of Creation.