July 31, 2015 – Some of the most breathtaking views in the Universe are created by nebulae — hot, glowing clouds of gas. A new NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the center of the Lagoon Nebula, an object with a deceptively tranquil name. The region is filled with intense winds from hot stars, churning funnels of gas, and energetic star formation, all embedded within an intricate haze of gas and pitch-dark dust.
Nebulae are often named based on their key characteristics — particularly beautiful examples include the Ring Nebula (heic1310), the Horsehead Nebula (heic1307) and the Butterfly Nebula (heic0910). The Lagoon Nebula, otherwise known as Messier 8, is in the constellation of Sagittarius (The Archer) and the inspiration for the nebula’s name may not be obvious because this image captures only the heart of the nebula. The Lagoon Nebula’s name becomes much clearer in a wider field view when the broad, lagoon-shaped dust lane that crosses the glowing gas of the nebula can be made out.
The new Hubble image of the Lagoon Nebula combines both infrared and optical light rather than being purely optical. Infrared light cuts through thick, obscuring patches of dust and gas, revealing the more intricate structures underneath and producing a completely different landscape. However, even in visible light, the tranquil name remains misleading as the region is packed full of violent phenomena.
The bright star embedded in dark clouds at the center of this image is known as Herschel 36. This star is responsible for sculpting the surrounding cloud, stripping away material and influencing its shape. Herschel 36 is the main source of ionising radiation for this part of the Lagoon Nebula.
The central part of the Lagoon Nebula contains two main structures of gas and dust connected by wispy twisters, visible in the middle third of this image. These features are similar to their namesakes on Earth — they are thought to be wrapped up into their funnel-like shapes by temperature differences between the hot surface and cold interior of the clouds. The nebula is also actively forming new stars, and energetic winds from these newborns may contribute to creating the twisters.
This new image from Hubble combines images taken by Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2), which was Hubble’s workhorse camera for many years. It recorded images through a selection of 48 colour filters covering a spectral range from far-ultraviolet to visible and near-infrared wavelengths. The ‘heart’ of WFPC2 consisted of an L-shaped trio of wide-field sensors and a smaller, high resolution (Planetary) Camera placed at the square’s remaining corner. Its resolution and excellent quality were some of the reasons that WFPC2 was the most used instrument in the first 13 years of Hubble’s life.
WFPC2 was replaced by the Ball Aerospace-built WFC3 during Servicing Mission 4 in 2009. All of the instruments currently operating on the Hubble Space Telescope were built by Ball Aerospace in Boulder, Colorado.
The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between ESA and NASA.