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Distant nebula creates a wicked witch head in the sky

October 30, 2013|By Deborah Netburn
  • Massive plumes of gas create a wicked witch profile in the sky in this image taken by the WISE infrared telescope.
Massive plumes of gas create a wicked witch profile in the sky in this image… (NASA/JPL-Caltech )

"I'll get you, Earth, and your little moon too!"

Just in time for Halloween, researchers at JPL have stumbled across a nebula that looks like a warty wicked witch, seen in profile.

The wicked witch head is actually a massive cloud of gas reflecting light from nearby stars. 

It is also a stellar nursery, said Amy Mainzer, an astronomer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The red dots clustered on the witch's pronounced chin are cool young stars being born.

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The image was taken by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, a space-based telescope that surveyed the entire sky in 2010 and early 2011.

Scientists at JPL are waking the telescope up from a 2 1/2-year rest to use its infrared sensors to search for near-Earth asteroids. It should be ready to start scanning early next year. 

In the meantime, Mainzer, who is principal investigator for the project known as NEOWISE, has been going through data collected by the infrared telescope during its first tour of duty, looking for the telltale string of small green dots that would indicate an asteroid has photo-bombed the image. 

"We were going back through the data set when we stumbled into this clump of clouds, and I was wondering what it was," Mainzer said. "I was looking at just little bits of it, because I was really looking for asteroids, but then I pulled back and said, 'Oh my God! It is the witch head nebula!'"

And with Halloween coming up, how could she resist sharing it with the world?


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