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New view of Horsehead Nebula: Ethereal wisps of gas and space dust

April 19, 2013|By Deborah Netburn
  • Researchers at the Hubble Space Telescope have released a new look at the Horsehead Nebula taken using infrared light.
Researchers at the Hubble Space Telescope have released a new look at the… (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble…)

Giant wispy clouds of gas and space dust rise to heights of 5-light years "tall" in this new image of the Horsehead Nebula that comes to us courtesy of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Horsehead Nebula is 1,300 light years away from Earth in the constellation of Orion. It was first discovered in 1888, and because it is so iconic and picturesque, it has been a favorite of professional and amateur astronomers a like.

When photographed using visible light, the nebula looks distinctively like the knight piece in a chess set--hence the name "horsehead."

Photos: More amazing images from space

But that horsey resemblance is harder to see in the recently released image above.

That's because this new image was taken using infrared light, which has a longer wave length than visible light, and can penetrate deeper in the gas cloud, revealing more detail about the nebula's structure.

Where the visible light images of the Horsehead Nebula reveal a dark and mostly opaque horse head figure, this infrared image makes the nebula look more wispy and ethereal--like something from a space dream. 

And just like a real dream, this Horsehead Nebula is impermanent.

Radiation from a nearby star is slowly eroding this nebula, and astronomers estimate that within 5 million years it will disintegrate entirely.

The release of the photo marks Hubble's 23rd anniversary of taking images from space and beaming them back to Earth.

As part of its celebration, NASA invited astronomers around the world to send in their own photographs of the Horsehead Nebula. 

If you have a little time to spare, it's definitely worth clicking through at least a few.

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