14 November 2016 | Running Chicken

running-chicken-nebula

Credit & copyright: Mario Weigand | Click image to enlarge

The Lambda Centauri Nebula is a cloud of glowing hydrogen and newborn stars in the constellation of Centaurus (The Centaur). The nebula, also known as IC 2944, is sometimes nicknamed the Running Chicken Nebula, from a bird-like shape some people see in its brightest region.

In the nebula, which lies around 6500 light-years from Earth, hot newborn stars that formed from clouds of hydrogen gas shine brightly with ultraviolet light. This intense radiation in turn excites the surrounding hydrogen cloud, making it glow a distinctive shade of red. This red shade is typical of star-forming regions, another famous example being the Lagoon Nebula.

Some people see a chicken shape in pictures of this red star-forming region, giving the nebula its nickname — though there is some disagreement over exactly which part of the nebula is chicken shaped, with various bird-like features in evidence across the picture.

Aside from the glowing gas, another sign of star formation in IC 2944 is the series of small opaque black clumps silhouetted against the red background. These are examples of a type of object called Bok globules. They appear dark as they absorb the light from the luminous background. However, observations of these dark clouds using infrared telescopes, which are able to see through the dust that normally blocks visible light, have revealed that stars are forming within many of them. The most prominent collection of Bok globules is known as Thackeray’s Globules, after the South African astronomer who discovered them in the 1950s.

If the stars cocooned in Thackeray’s Globules are still gestating, then the stars of cluster IC 2948, embedded within the nebula, are their older siblings. Still young in stellar terms, at just a few million years old, these stars shine brightly, and their ultraviolet radiation provides much of the energy that lights up the nebula. These glowing nebulae are relatively short-lived in astronomical terms (typically a few million years), meaning that the Lambda Centauri Nebula will eventually fade away as it loses both its gas and its supply of ultraviolet radiation.

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