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Hubble and Hershel show the Horsehead Nebula in a spectacular new light


April 22, 2013

Hubble's stunning near-infrared image of the Horsehead Nebula (Image: NASA)

Hubble's stunning near-infrared image of the Horsehead Nebula (Image: NASA)

Image Gallery (4 images)

New near-infrared and far-infrared views captured by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope and the European Space Agency's (ESA) Herschel space telescope have provided a spectacular new look at the famous Horsehead Nebula.

The Horsehead Nebula lies some 1500 light-years away in the constellation of Orion, just south of Alnitak, the most easterly star in the famous belt. The nebula, also known as Barnard 33, spans approximately five light-years and is a popular viewing target for both amateur and professional astronomers.

Hubble's stunning near-infrared image of the Horsehead Nebula (Image: NASA)

The Hubble image marks the 23rd anniversary of the observatory's launch aboard the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990. Unlike optical light images of the Horsehead Nebula, which appear dark and shadowy, Hubble's infrared view is rich with detail and appears almost transparent against the backdrop of the Milky Way. The image was taken using the Wide Field Camera 3, which was installed on the observatory in 2009.

The ultraviolet glare from the two bright stars visible along the nebula's top ridge is thought to be slowly evaporating the nebula itself, with some of the gas surrounding gas clouds having already disappeared.

Herschel's image of the Orion Molecular Cloud with the Horsehead Nebula visible on the right side (Image: ESA)

Unlike the Hubble image, Herschel's view gives a wider perspective, showing the huge Orion molecular cloud, with the Horsehead itself visible on the far right of the image. The far-infrared Herschel view captures the glow from the dust and clouds of cold dust, materials that will eventually collapse to form stars.

In addition to the Horsehead itself, the image covers a number of well known objects such as the butterfly wing-like star formation sites NGC2068 and 2071, and the imposing Flame Nebula.

The Flame Nebula as taken by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (Image: NASA)

Unlike the Hubble telescope that will be in use for years to come, Herschel is nearing the end of its life span, with the superfluid helium used to cool its instruments and detectors all but gone.

Sources: NASA, ESA

About the Author
Chris Wood Chris specializes in mobile technology for Gizmag, but also likes to dabble in the latest gaming gadgets. He has a degree in Politics and Ancient History from the University of Exeter, and lives in Gloucestershire, UK. In his spare time you might find him playing music, following a variety of sports or binge watching Game of Thrones. All articles by Chris Wood

Flame Nebula looks like an Angel!!!!!!

Aurelijus Sip

The original horsehead nebula looked innocent. This thing looks menacing.

Can't wait until humanity can reach these things. :)


You're right, you can't wait. Won't happen in your lifetime.

Paul Smith

Paul Smith LOL, I was thinking the same thing. I just can't understand people that say there is no chance of life elsewhere. I wonder if these are the same people that walk around quoting their bible. Anyway amazing photo.

Jeff Williams

Think of a mega class civilization taking in all this material for construction!

Lou Digilio

@Paul, who's to say that we don't develop hibernation/cryogenics/immorality within 70-80 years?

Artem Down

Maybe the astronomy community well raise the money for a service mission.


1500 light-years away. Simple cryogenics isn't going to help much. As for immortality, hope does not spring eternal. The trip from the astronaut's point of view, at light speed (as fast as you can go, assuming we figure out how), would be much less, but still longer than your lifetime by a large margin. But it would still be 1500 years here. Loooong time.

Clay Jones

@Jeff Williams Be careful Jeff, God is watching...


To be accurate and correct, should all these articles and research not be in the past tense? They all state that this is there and that is there. It should be that this WAS there and that WAS there, because the light that they are seeing is very very old and all that stuff could be completely gone right now! True?

BlueZango (Walt)

I should be more to the point with my simple beliefs, choosing instead to be the constructive and positive representative of the species:

If you can hold on to life another 50 years, technology will be available to extend life indefinitely. The only choice one will make is if the tedium of life is not too much after a few centuries. For the above, I don't believe population growth will be an issue. We have not substantially changed, farming and water recovery techniques since 2000 years ago. Just optimized the rate of extraction. I believe our planet can sustain in excess of 100 billion people living first world lifestyles with a natural view of the sun (either on surface or orbiting the planet). With rapid development from excess demand for change from above (the quickening), we will develop a form of space bending/dimension shift technology at least within the next couple of hundred years.

Yes others may go the other route and talk in depth about humans destroying one another, limit to the speed of light, and some trends in humanity to want to revert to a simpler life of horse drawn carriage and marrying one's cousin. I simply choose to ignore those people's opinions :)

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