Southern skies

Images from Chilean observatory shed new light on Pencil Nebula

Pictures from a telescope in the Atacama reveal that an oddly shaped celestial body looks less like a writing tool and more like a kaleidoscopic witch’s broom.

Thursday, September 27, 2012 Category: Education
The magnificent Pencil Nebula, as shown through a telescope at the La Silla observatory in Northern The magnificent Pencil Nebula, as shown through a telescope at the La Silla observatory in Northern Chile. Photo courtesy of ESO.

The Pencil Nebula has long interested astronomers due to its bizarre and beautiful cylindrical clouds of gas, but the true spectacle of the interstellar formation has not been made apparent until now.


New images from the European Southern Observatory (ESO)’s La Silla telescope in northern Chile’s Coquimbo Region are now offering the clearest ever rendering of the nebula.


Astronomers have revealed that the nebula’s long, thin filament of blue gas is accompanied by several magnificent strands of red gas, giving the appearance of a luminescent witch’s broom hanging in space.


Discovered in 1835 in South Africa by astronomer John Herschel, the nebula is a remnant of a massive supernova explosion that occurred in the Vela constellation around the time of the birth of agriculture about 11 thousand years ago.


The nebula is 800 light years from Earth and stretches 4.3 trillion miles across. While it appears to be floating serenely still in space, the nebula is in fact hurtling across the universe at a speed of 400 thousand miles per hour. This great speed means that the nebula will noticeably change its position relative to the background stars within a human lifetime, despite its distance from Earth.


The differing cloud colors allow astronomers to measure the temperature and makeup of the clouds. The hottest regions glow blue and are comprised mainly of ionized oxygen, while the cooler, red clouds are the product of hydrogen emission.


The image is yet another finding to come out of the ESO in Chile, which remains one of the most active observation organizations in the world. Earlier this month, ESO released images of an ancient, age defying star which has intrigued astronomers across the scientific community.


Chile boasts almost half of the world’s astronomy infrastructure, and this is set to increase to around 70 percent by 2018 as the country’s clear and rich skies continue to attract astronomers from across the globe. 

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