Neglected Orion Nebula: A Cosmic Bat?

Today the European Southern Observatory in Chile released a stunning new picture of NGC 1788, a ghostly little nebula in the Orion constellation. For backyard astronomers, the object can be spotted just a wee bit away from the bright stars in the Hunter’s belt.


—Image courtesy ESO

This “hidden gem” is what’s known as a reflection nebula, which means that it glows not due to heat from the dust and gases themselves, but because it is reflecting light from the young stars nestled inside.

By contrast, the nebula’s blue, purple, and rosy hues are set against an almost vertical line of hydrogen gas, which glows red because it is being heated up by nearby massive stars.

Inside NGC 1788 is a veritable preschool of stars—most less than a million years old—separated into three distinct age groupings.

The oldest of these stars sit to the left while the youngest lie to the right, still wrapped in their natal cocoons of dust. It’s the stars in the middle of the class that light up the nebula.

This progression of ages suggests to astronomers that the nebula experienced a wave of star formation that ultimately sculpted it into the shape we see today.

And the shape we see further suggested to the ESO team that the nebula looks like a big bat spreading its wings across the cosmos.

I’d bet astronomers have a ball looking at spectacular cosmic objects and arguing over whether any given galaxy looks more like a bunny or a bulldozer.

Heck, the earliest astronomers must have had amazing imaginations to look at the night sky and see lions and centaurs and women with scales.

Maybe I need more coffee, but I’m not getting a strong bat vibe from NCG 1788. Since angles are relative when it comes to space, I’d rotate that bad boy 90 degrees to the right and call it the Magic Mushroom Nebula. And what does that reveal about my personality?

Unlike this Rorschach test writ large, there are some space objects that really do have almost unquestionably appropriate names. Here are my top five:


5) The Cigar Galaxy

—Image courtesy NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

It’s not too hard to see how Messier 82 (seen here in a Hubble Space Telescope shot) got this moniker … although the red hydrogen plumes branching from the central bulge detract a bit from the effect.


4) The Cat’s Eye Nebula

—Image courtesy NASA, ESA, HEIC, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

If my cats actually had eyes like this, I’d probably be making an emergency call to the vet’s office. Still, that distinctive slit crossing a multihued orb makes the nickname for NGC 6543 fit pretty well. This is a planetary nebula, by the way, which means it’s the dust and gases left over after a star like our sun expands during its death throes, sending the layers of its bloated atmosphere streaming out into space.


3) The Whirlpool Galaxy

—Image courtesy NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Not named for looking like a washing machine, Messier 51 is a spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way, except seen from Earth face-on so that it looks like a cosmic vortex. Also known in my book as the hypnotist’s delight. You are getting sleepy, veeeery sleeepy …


2) The Eskimo Nebula

—Image courtesy Credit: Andrew Fruchter (STScI) et al., WFPC2, HST, NASA

C’mon. What else would you call the planetary nebula NGC 2392? If ever a dying star wanted to know what it’d look like wearing an Arctic-ready parka, this’d be the trend setter.

And finally,


1) The Butterfly Nebula

—Image courtesy NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team

With these billowing, shiny wings, the planetary nebula NGC 6302 practically deserves its own genus and species. We can only hope our own sun will create an equally beautiful nebula someday—and that our ancestors will be living on some distant colony so they’ll be able to take pictures of its splendor.

Human Journey