Pretty freakishly cool isn’t it? Personally, I never really got onto this GIF thing. It’s like, if it fits on the page and looks cool, it’s all good. However, this one was too cool to ignore. The brain-child of Finnish astrophotographer J-P Metsävainio, this GIF depicts IC 1396, a nebula where stars are born.
This nebula is a little over 2000 light years away, toward the constellation of Cepheus, and is well over a hundred light years across. Even at its tremendous distance, it’s wider than six full Moons in our sky. For some time, Metsävainio has been making impressive images of this nebula, but that didn’t seem to be enough for the erstwhile stargazer. And so, he began playing with 3D images in the hopes of creating a model of the structure of the nebula, one which showed it from different angles.
Granted, some have gone on record as saying this is more art than astronomy, and not all the features are one-hundred percent accurate. But the animation does give you a good sense of the nebula’s composition, as well as a glimpse of what the heart of a star-birthing nebula looks like. Notice the large blue star in the middle that is the ionizing source – i.e. the hot, young, massive star blasting out ultraviolet light which makes the nebula glow. The dark strands on the outside are filaments of dust which appear that way because absorb the visible light emitted from the center of the nebula.
The color pattern is also quite accurate, with blue on the inside and red without. This color change is due to the presence of oxygen gas within the cloud which glows blue because of its proximity to the central stars. Farther out, the starlight is too weak to make oxygen glow, so all you see is the ruddy glow from hydrogen. And fyi, that star is mu Cephei, a massive red supergiant which happens to be one of the most luminous stars in the Milky Way, possibly over 300,000 times more luminous than the Sun.
Pretty cool huh? Hat’s off to you Metsävainio. I can’t speak for everyone, but you’ve certainly blown my mind! Click on the photo to watch the animation, and if you want to download it, don’t be surprised if it takes a while. The damn thing is 7 megabytes!