Hidden Within This Wispy, Butterfly Wing–Shaped Nebula, a Star Is Born

An image of a nebula in space. Towards the left of the photo is a butterfly winged shaped cloud of gas.
While the nebula can be observed in visible light (as seen in the image above), it gets its name from how brightly it also appears when viewed in infrared wavelengths of light.
  International Gemini Observatory/NOIRLab/NSF/AURA

An ethereal image of a wispy nebula, sculpted by the birth of a star, was captured by the International Gemini Observatory located in Cerro Pachón, Chile. The celestial object resembles a shimmering, one-winged butterfly floating in space, but it’s actually an interstellar cloud of dust and gas known as the Chamaeleon Infrared Nebula, according to a press release. 

The nebula is situated 520 light-years away from Earth near the center of the Chamaeleon I dark cloud, one of the nearest star-forming regions in the Milky Way galaxy. Star birth begins with the formation of a protostar as gravity pulls gas clouds together in a process known as accretion. Eventually, the gas clouds collapse under the pressure of their own gravity, spinning into an accretion disk that feeds mass to what will become a star, reports Michelle Starr for Science Alert.

As the protostar grows, it creates strong cosmic winds. Material falling into the protostar will then begin to interact with its magnetic fields. Traveling along the magnetic field lines toward the poles, the debris is blasted back into space as streams of plasma, Science Alert reports. Researchers suspect the feathery “wing” seen in the image is actually jets of fast-moving gas flowing back into space. The accretion disk is the dark area at the narrowest point of the wing.

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Towards the nebula’s right is a bright red splotch, known as a Herbig-Haro object, which may have formed when gas spewing from the young protostar collided—at speeds of several hundred kilometers per second—with the dust and gas surrounding it, reports Passant Rabie for Inverse.

Blue light emanating from the image’s top right may be background lighting from another nearby star out of frame, per Inverse.

While at the center of the Chamaeleon Infrared Nebula is a baby star, the object eventually will become a full-fledged star after it gathers enough mass to explode into nuclear fusion, at which point it will become a main sequence star, per Science Alert.

Astronomers at the Gemini South observatory, located at the top of Cerro Pachón in Chile, were able to capture such astonishing details in the image using the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrograph (GMOS), Tech Explorist reports. Gemini South is part of a pair of observatories known as the International Gemini Observatory. Its counterpart, Gemini North, is located in Maunakea, Hawaiʻi. Together, the twin observatories keep their eyes on the sky from both of Earth’s hemispheres. 

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