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12-25-2023

The "Running Chicken Nebula" captured just in time for your holiday feast

As the festive season brings an array of traditional feasts around the world, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) introduces a cosmic delicacy: the Running Chicken Nebula.

This celestial wonder, captured in an astounding 1.5-billion-pixel image by the VLT Survey Telescope (VST) at ESO’s Paranal site in Chile, offers a visual feast that rivals any holiday table.

Running Chicken Nebula’s location

Nestled in the constellation Centaurus, approximately 6500 light-years from Earth, this vast stellar nursery is a cradle of young stars. These nascent stars emit intense radiation, illuminating the surrounding hydrogen gas in a mesmerizing pink hue, reminiscent of festive lights.

The nebula, which spans an area equivalent to about 25 full moons in the sky, is not just a singular entity but a complex of several regions, each with its own story. The most prominent area, IC 2948, is often humorously debated as either the chicken’s head or rear.

Here, the pastel-toned gas and dust create a surreal, ethereal landscape. At the heart of the nebula, marked by a striking, bright, vertical structure, lies IC 2944, where Lambda Centauri shines the brightest — a star visible to the naked eye but much closer to us than the nebula itself.

Stars in the Running Chicken Nebula

Yet, within IC 2948 and IC 2944, numerous young stars shine with a ferocity that is anything but merry. Their intense radiation sculpts the nebula in a manner akin to a chicken pecking at its environment.

Amidst this turbulent space, Bok globules stand resilient. These small, dense pockets of dust and gas withstand the onslaught of ultraviolet radiation, appearing as dark specks when zoomed into the image.

The image also showcases other regions like Gum 39, 40, and 41. Amidst these nebulae, a myriad of orange, white, and blue stars sparkle, evoking a celestial fireworks display.

The depth and breadth of wonders in this image are truly inexhaustible — each zoom and pan reveals more for the eyes to feast upon.

Technical aspects of the image

This remarkable image is a mosaic of hundreds of individual frames, meticulously pieced together. The frames were captured through filters that isolated different light colors, later combined to form the final image. This intricate process highlights the varied hues and features of the nebula.

The observations were made using the OmegaCAM on the VST, a telescope operated by the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy (INAF) and hosted by ESO in Chile’s Atacama Desert. This location is ideal for mapping the southern sky in visible light.

The data for this mosaic were collected as part of the VST Photometric Hα Survey of the Southern Galactic Plane and Bulge (VPHAS+), an endeavor aimed at unraveling the life cycle of stars.

This holiday season, as we partake in our earthly traditions, the Running Chicken Nebula stands as a reminder of the universe’s vastness and beauty — a cosmic feast for the eyes, inviting us to explore the mysteries of star formation and the intricate tapestry of the cosmos.

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