Science & Tech

Astronomers spot the Great Orion Nebula’s successor

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Astronomers announced Jan. 11, 2006, that they have found the next Orion Nebula. Known as W3, this glowing gas cloud in the constellation Cassiopeia has just begun to shine with newborn stars. Shrouds of dust currently hide its light, but this is only a temporary state. In 100,000 years – a blink of the eye in astronomical terms – it may blaze forth, delighting stargazers around the world and becoming the Grand Nebula in Cassiopeia.

“The Grand Nebula in Cassiopeia will appear in our sky just as the Great Nebula in Orion fades away,” said Smithsonian astronomer Tom Megeath (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), who made the announcement in a press conference at the 207th meeting of the American Astronomical Society. “Even better, its home constellation is visible year-round from much of the northern hemisphere.”

The Orion Nebula is one of the most famous and easily viewed deep-sky sights. It holds special significance for researchers as the nearest region of massive star formation.

The star formation process begins in a dark cloud of cold gas, where small lumps of material begin to contract. Gravity draws the gas into hot condensations that ignite and become stars. The most massive stars produce hot winds and intense light that blast away the surrounding cloud. But during the process of destruction, stellar radiation lights up the cloud, creating a bright nebula for stargazers to admire.

“Orion may seem very peaceful on a cold winter night, but in reality it holds very massive, luminous stars that are destroying the dusty gas cloud from which they formed,” said Megeath. “Eventually, the cloud of material will disperse and the Orion Nebula will fade from our sky.”