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California Nebula

November 6, 2010

The constellation Perseus climbs high across the sky on autumn nights. Among other wonders, it’s home to a beautiful red nebula whose outline looks a lot like the state of California. But the California Nebula is 65 light-years long, so it’s half a trillion times larger than its namesake. And it’s a bit farther away, too -- almost 1500 light-years from Earth.

Astronomers recently discovered that there’s a lot more to the nebula than just the part that looks like California.

A team led by Charles Lada of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics made the discovery by studying distant stars in Perseus. The astronomers noticed that the light from these stars looked unusually red -- an indication that dust between Earth and the stars was scattering some of their blue light, just as dust in Earth’s atmosphere makes the Sun look red at sunrise and sunset.

By mapping these stars, Lada’s team discovered an enormous cloud of gas around the California Nebula. It contains enough material to make a hundred thousand stars as massive as the Sun. That makes it one of the largest clouds in our part of the galaxy. In fact, it rivals the biggest such cloud, which is in Orion.

The cloud in Orion has spawned thousands of stars. But so far, the California cloud is mostly dark, and its fate is unknown. It may remain mostly starless, or, during the next few million years, it may make Perseus sparkle with thousands of new stars.


Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2010


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