This image of a dusty dreamscape is actually bursting with celestial life, creating a heavenly display of clouds, colors, and gas. Taken at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter at the University of Arizona, this telescopic photo was enhanced by Adam Block to highlight the magical features of the nebula NGC 2170, which lies in the appropriately-named Unicorn (Monoceros) constellation.

NGC 2170 is the perfect habitat for new stars to form.
NGC 2170 is the perfect habitat for new stars to form. 

The molecular cloud surrounding NGC 2170 is called Mon R2 and reflects the light given off by the young nearby stars. This classifies NGC 2170 as a reflection nebula, which means that the light scatters the dust fragments in the nebula and causes them to appear blue or red — the same process that gives us blue skies and vivid pink glowing sunsets on Earth.

Discovered by British astronomer William Herschel in 1784, NGC 2170 doesn’t release quite enough energy to be considered an emissions nebula, which would mean that the light given off by the young stars would ionize the chemicals — hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, etc. — within the nebula to create large outbursts of gas. We see this process with the Rosette Nebula and the Heart Nebula. This makes the newly forming stars a little easier for astronomers to spot because the cloud and gas cover isn’t quite as thick as in an emissions nebula.

NGC 2170 is believed to have formed from a supernova six to 10 million years ago and has been feeding new stars ever since. It is about 2,700 light years away from Earth and can be seen from the northern sky bordered by Orion, Gemini, Canis Major, and Hydra.

Photos via Adam Block, Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter, U. Arizona, Flickr / Diana Boucino