Take a tour of one of the most famous star-forming gas clouds in the night sky, the Orion Nebula, with a new, 3D visualization released by NASA.
In this short video, viewers slip through the colorful clouds, bright stars and detailed structures of the popular nebula. The visualization was created using real data from the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, combined with “Hollywood techniques,” according to a statement from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), which co-produced the video.
The creators of the video said in the statement that they hope the visualization will give viewers a better idea of the 3D structure of the star-forming region. For example, the Trapezium star cluster in the heart of the nebula includes a bowl-shaped valley carved out by intense ultraviolet radiation and “winds” from new stars. The complete topology of that region isn’t visible in 2D images.
“Astronomers and visualizers worked together to make a three-dimensional model of the depths of this cavernous region, like plotting mountains and valleys on the ocean floor,” according to the statement. “Colorful Hubble and Spitzer images were then overlaid on the terrain.”
The movie occasionally switches between images taken by the two separate telescopes. The Hubble space telescope captures light in the visible range seen by humans, as well as longer and shorter wavelengths in the ultraviolet and near-infrared ranges. The Spitzer space telescope captures light in the mid-infrared to far-infrared range, capturing objects and structures that are lower in temperature than what Hubble sees. But scientists can create visible representations of the data, revealing structures that would otherwise be invisible to humans.
“Looking at the universe in infrared light gives striking context for the more familiar visible-light views,” Robert Hurt, a lead visualization scientist at the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center (IPAC) at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), said in the statement. “This movie provides a uniquely immersive chance to see how new features appear as we shift to wavelengths of light normally invisible to our eyes.”
The two telescopes provide 2D images of cosmic objects, so the creators had to rely on both “scientific knowledge and scientific intuition” to create the 3D tour. Summer and Hurt “worked with experts to analyze the structure inside the nebula,” using visible light to create the surfaces, and infrared light to construct much of the nebula’s structure.
“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,” Frank Summers, the STScI visualization scientist who led the team that developed the movie, said in the statement.
The visualization was created by scientists at STScI and Caltech/IPAC as part of NASA’s Universe of Learning program. The program uses a “direct connection” to NASA science and scientists, to create content that “[enables] youth, families, and lifelong learners to explore fundamental questions in science, experience how science is done, and discover the universe for themselves.”