A Dark Horse in a Different Light

Infrared image of the Horsehead Nebula. Credit: NASA/ESA, STScI, Z. Levay. Processing by Jason Major.

Here’s a view of the famous Horsehead Nebula (Barnard 33) located 1,375 light-years away from Earth, just under Alnitak, the first star in Orion’s belt. This is a color-composite made from images acquired with Hubble in wide-band infrared in October and November of 2012. (Principal Investigator Z. Levay).In optical light this nebula appears dark against a bright background (the emission nebula IC 434), the resulting silhouette giving it its equine moniker. But in infrared wavelengths the internal structure of opaque dust and gas becomes visible and creates a form reminiscent (to me anyway) of a thick-shouldered, shambling humanoid form, like some enormous leering troll of Nordic legend.

And it is enormous—the cloud is about 3 light-years across. Our entire Solar System could fit inside it several times.

Also if you look around the edges of the image you’ll see many disk- and elliptical-shaped hazy “stars” in the background… except those aren’t stars, they’re entire galaxies in the distance! The nebula and brightly pointed stars are within our Milky Way but those other galaxies are truly far, far away.

See this and more of my processed images from the Hubble Space Telescope in my Flickr album here.