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Witch Head Nebula

November 26, 2010

Most high school students don’t find their names in a scientific journal, but that’s what’s going to happen to more than a dozen teenagers who helped scientists study a cloud of gas and dust known as the Witch Head Nebula.

The nebula is in the constellation Eridanus, the river. But a star in a neighboring constellation lights up the nebula. The nebula’s dust reflects light from the powerful blue supergiant star Rigel, in Orion. Look for Orion rising in the eastern sky in mid-evening. Rigel is to the right of Orion’s three-star belt. The Witch Head is to the upper right of Rigel, although it’s not visible to the unaided eye.

German astronomer Max Wolf discovered the Witch Head a century ago. But only in recent years have astronomers realized that it’s a breeding ground for new stars.

Scientists recently used Spitzer Space Telescope to discover a half-dozen previously unknown new stars in the Witch Head. Spitzer detects infrared radiation, which is invisible to the human eye. The Witch Head produces infrared light because its young stars heat the gas and dust around them. And unlike visible light, which dust absorbs, infrared penetrates the dust.

One of the newly detected stars may even have an orbiting disk of gas and dust, which could be giving birth to planets.

The discovery was part of an outreach program that involves students across the country. So the students will share credit for discovering newborn stars in a distant nursery.


Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2010


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