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VIDEO: Take A Trip Through The Orion Nebula, A Baby Star Nursery

An artist's rendition of a star cluster in the Orion Nebula, using both visible-light and infrared-light visualizations.
An artist's rendition of a star cluster in the Orion Nebula, using both visible-light and infrared-light visualizations.

You've seen the Orion Nebula before – but not like this.

It's part of the Orion constellation, easily visible from Earth: The bright center "star" in Orion's sword, located off Orion's belt, is actually an active nebula where new stars are formed.

Now, NASA scientists and visualization specialists have produced a vivid, three-dimensional tour of the baby star nursery, surrounded by colorful, glowing clouds created by intense radiation.

Take the three-minute stellar trip here, accompanied by Dvorak's soaring string music:

The video pans through ethereal colorful gases and dust that form mountains and cavernous valleys, with baby stars interspersed. This nebula is considered young (just 2 million years old), and it's close to us (about 1,350 light years away.)

The team, led by visualization scientist Frank Summers from the Space Telescope Science Institute, used images from the Hubble and Spitzer telescopes. The telescopes capture different information about the busy nebula.

"Hubble sees objects that glow in visible light, which are typically in the thousands of degrees. Spitzer is sensitive to cooler objects with temperatures of just hundreds of degree," the team said in a press release. "Spitzer's infrared vision pierces through obscuring dust to see stars embedded deep into the nebula, as well as fainter and less massive stars, which are brighter in the infrared than in visible light."

To create the video, that scientific data was paired with "Hollywood techniques," the team said, such as running special code to combine "the tens of millions of semi-transparent elements of the gas."

The result allows viewers to get a more complete idea of the nebula's atmosphere, compared to a static image from a telescope. "Being able to fly through the nebula's tapestry in three dimensions gives people a much better sense of what the universe is really like," says Summers.

The nebula is also believed to have couple of planets behaving in an unusual way. As National Geographic reported, preliminary observations suggest the two planets, "instead of orbiting a star, are dancing around one another." The findings were announced earlier this week in Maryland at the 231st American Astronomical Society meeting.

The nebula's official name is Messier 42, or simply M42. And if you want to see it for yourself, now's the time. NASA says that the best month for viewing the Orion Nebula is January.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.