A cosmic catastrophe hiding 'in plain sight'

By Gary Zientara
Posted 1/31/20

We are now in the "dead of winter." Its late-January icy grip is fully upon us.

But did you know that the cold winter night sky is full of fire and fury?

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A cosmic catastrophe hiding 'in plain sight'


We are now in the "dead of winter." Its late-January icy grip is fully upon us.

But did you know that the cold winter night sky is full of fire and fury? The winter constellation Orion the Hunter dominates the evening hours with his four bright body stars Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Rigel and Saiph and his famous belt made up of three equally dazzling blue stars Mintaka, Alnilam and Alnitak.

If you look about five degrees left and 10 degrees down from the famous red giant Betelgeuse, you'll see what looks like, well, nothing. But oh, how wrong you'd be, because there is a cosmic catastrophe of almost unimaginable proportions going on right in that spot. The only problem is that our eyes, which evolved to see colors lit up by the sun, are incapable of seeing it.

Not to worry. Modern technology has saved the day by developing optical instruments and filters such as the Hydrogen Alpha (HA) filter that can detect this heavenly cataclysm. The above two astrophotos taken at Mount Sangre Observatory near Angle Fire not only reveal this "unseen" deep space giant, but also show its stunning beauty and complexity.

This is the Rosette Nebula in the constellation Monoceros the Unicorn. The first image (left) is a close-up of the center of the Rosette taken two years ago. The second is a nine-frame (3 by 3) mosaic of the entire nebula imaged a week ago. The difference is in the sophistication of the equipment. Mount Sangre Observatory has been upgraded with a larger telescope with twice the light-gathering capability and a greatly improved tracking mount. With the old equipment, I would not be able to take such a large image with this kind of clarity.

Even though the Rosette Nebula is 5,000 light years away (a light year is equivalent to 6 trillion miles), it appears larger than the apparent size of Earth's full moon (only 240,000 miles away). So what's going on to make this nebula look like the unfurling petals of a rose?

The Rosette was originally a vast cloud of mostly hydrogen gas as well as a fair amount of dust practically identical to the stuff you see accumulating underneath your bed. Over eons of time, the denser portions of this cloud or nebula attracted more gas and dust first by simple static electricity and then by gravitational attraction as their densities increased. Like an ice skater pulling her arms into her body as she twirls on her skates, the growing denser portions of the nebula began spinning like a top. Eventually, the spinning masses grew into torus-shaped clouds with dense centers.

Those doughnut-shaped clouds finally collapsed enough to create proto-stars in their centers and, most likely, proto-planets in the toruses surrounding them. When temperatures increased in the dense centers enough to cause nuclear fusion, stars were born. The newborn stars' radiation and stellar winds shaped the Rosette Nebula into the form you see in these images. The rather large hole in the center is the result of multiple stars in the "baby" star cluster at the Rosette's center literally blowing a hole in the nebula.

Gary Zientara is an astronomer and owner of Mount Sangre Observatory in Angel Fire.


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