The Orion nebula is the closest region of large scale star formation to Earth sitting just 1340 light years from where you are reading this post.

The nebula is in the process of birthing the next generation of stars, with many still cocooned within the clouds from which they are forming, from peering eyes. Well that’s in the visible spectrum at least. Using infra red observations we can looks through the obsuring dust as if it isn’t there at all.

This is exactly what astronomers using the Sptizer and Hershel Space telescopes have done to produce this gorgeous image:

The Orion Nebula in I-R Credit: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/IRAM

The rainbow effect is due to the combination of different sets of observations through different filters. by combining the individual images the compound image can reveal the nebula in stunning detail with each colour displaying a different wavelength of I-R radiation. Using two telescopes also has advantages, as Sptizer is designed to observe at shorter wavelengths than Hershel and so by combining the two sets of data astronomers can get a more complete view of what is going on.

In this case the data revealed something very unusual indeed. Several of the young protostars have been flickering wildly, with their brightness fluctuating by as much as 20% in just a few weeks. Based on the cool temperatures of the material involved, the fluctuations had to occur far from the hot regions near the growing star, but such material should be far enough away from the star to spend years or even centuries in a slow decaying orbit before accreating onto the star’s surface.

Currently the explanation for how such a process could be so drastically accelerated is still up for debate though there are several suggestions. The other material may not be evenly distributed around the star, with some regions being more densely occupied than others. That may allow some of the denser clumps or filaments to collide with an inner, warmer shell of material causing the flare ups. It could also be caused by material piling up at the edge of the inner disk and so casting a shadow on the outer disk.

You can read more about this image here and here

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