Stars are born in clouds of swirling gas, pulling the dust of their nebula nurseries into planetary systems. And new, stunning images from deep within the Orion nebula have challenged scientific assumptions about how stars and planets form.
This snapshot, taken by an international team led by Holger Drass, a graduate student at the European Southern Observatory, shows ten times as many brown dwarfs and planets as had been previously known. This means that the nebula is forming way more planets, and fewer stars than had been expected.
As seen from Earth, the Orion nebula is a fuzzy part of the sword of the constellation Orion. It is relatively close to Earth, only 1,350 light-years away. And at barely 3 million years old, it is practically an infant, making it the ideal place to research star and planetary formation. Because of all of the hot, young stars within it, it also glows with ultraviolet radiation—making the photo taken in the research particularly breathtaking.
Because of all the gas and dust in the nebula, images taken just in visible light have shrouded the mysteries hidden inside. By looking using the HAWK-I infrared instrument on the Very Large Telescope, the team was able to get a good look, as the cloud doesn’t affect the infrared spectrum.
But the image gives researchers more questions than answers. They don’t know why the Orion nebula has so many planets floating in space away from stars, or how they form yet. The fact that these objects exist means that something different is happening, and they’re going to need more than one photo (no matter how good) to figure out exactly what.
The European-Extremely Large Telescope, set to start operating in 2024, will be taking a closer look. And Drass is hopeful that higher resolution images will show even more young planets. Until then, we can appreciate that the Orion nebula has finally found its best filter.