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05.30.05

Pillars Behind the Dust

The movie begins with a visible-light picture of the southern region of our Milky Way galaxy then slowly zooms into the area imaged by NASA's Spitzer Space telescope. The dust pillars are fewer and appear dark in the visible-light view because the dust is soaking up visible light. Spitzer's infrared detectors cut through this dust, allowing it to see the heat from warm, embedded star embryos, as well as deeper, more buried pillars.

The false-color image taken by Spitzer shows the "South Pillar" region of the star-forming region called the Carina Nebula. Like cracking open a watermelon and finding its seeds, the infrared telescope "busted open" this murky cloud to reveal star embryos (yellow or white) tucked inside finger-like pillars of thick dust (pink). Hot gases are green and foreground stars are blue. Not all of the newfound star embryos can be easily spotted.

Eta Carinae is a behemoth of a star, with more than 100 times the mass of our Sun. It is so massive that it can barely hold itself together. Over the years, it has brightened and faded as material has shot away from its surface. Some astronomers think Eta Carinae might die in a supernova blast within our lifetime.

Eta Carinae's home, the Carina Nebula, is located in the southern portion of our Milky Way galaxy, 10,000 light-years from Earth. This colossal cloud of gas and dust stretches across 200 light-years of space. Though it is dominated by Eta Carinae, it also houses the star's slightly less massive siblings, in addition to the younger generations of stars.

The Spitzer image was taken by the infrared array camera on the telescope. It is a three-color composite of invisible light, showing emissions from wavelengths of 3.6 microns (blue), 4.5 microns (green), 5.8 microns (orange), and 8.0 microns (red).

The visible-light picture is from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.

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