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The Elephant’s Trunk

October 12, 2014

There’s something about clouds that inspires the imagination. Let a few puffs drift by on an autumn afternoon, and you might see a dragon or a droid or a long-lost friend. And the same thing happens when you look through a telescope. Many interstellar clouds have names that describe their resemblance to animals or objects here on Earth, from an eagle to the North American continent.

Another one of those clouds stands high overhead this evening — the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula. It’s a dark, narrow ribbon with a bright rim. It’s silhouetted against a much larger cloud that’s about 2,500 light-years away.

A hot, young star not far from the nebula is sculpting the elephant’s trunk. The star’s radiation acts like a blowtorch, eroding gas and dust on one side of the nebula. But it also squeezes some of the material together to make dense clumps, which may then collapse to form new stars.

In fact, that region has given birth to many stars in the last couple of million years. Some of the stars are inside a dense knot at the tip of the elephant’s trunk. Strong winds from these stars push the gas and dust around them. Combined with the effects of the outside star, that squeezes the material between them even more — setting up the birth of more stars.

The nebula is in the constellation Cepheus, which is high in the north on October evenings. You need a telescope to see it — an elephant’s trunk trumpeting the birth of new stars.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2014

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