Looking like a colorful holiday card, this image from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope reveals a vibrant green and red nebula far from Earth, where nature seems to have put on the traditional colors of the season. These colors, produced by the light emitted by oxygen and hydrogen, help astronomers investigate the star-forming processes in nebulas such as NGC 2080.
NGC 2080, nicknamed "The Ghost Head Nebula," is one of a chain of star-forming regions lying south of the 30 Doradus nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud that have attracted special attention. These regions have been studied in detail with Hubble and have long been identified as unique star-forming sites. 30 Doradus is the largest star-forming complex in the whole local group of galaxies.
The light from the nebula captured in this image is emitted by two elements, hydrogen and oxygen. The red and the blue light are from regions of hydrogen gas heated by nearby stars. The green light on the left comes from glowing oxygen. The energy to illuminate the green light is supplied by a powerful stellar wind (a stream of high-speed particles) coming from a massive star just outside the image. The white region in the center is a combination of all three emissions and indicates a core of hot, massive stars in this star-formation region. The intense emission from these stars has carved a bowl-shaped cavity in the surrounding gas.
In the white region, the two bright areas (the "eyes of the ghost") - named A1 (left) and A2 (right) - are very hot, glowing "blobs" of hydrogen and oxygen. The bubble in A1 is produced by the hot, intense radiation and powerful stellar wind from a single massive star. A2 has a more complex appearance due to the presence of more dust, and it contains several hidden, massive stars. The massive stars in A1 and A2 must have formed within the last 10,000 years, since their natal gas shrouds are not yet disrupted by the powerful radiation of the newly born stars.
The research team noted that Hubble's superb resolution is essential to see the various features in the nebula and to better understand the formation of massive stars in this interesting region.
This "enhanced color" picture is composed of three narrow-band-filter images obtained March 28, 2000, with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. The colors are red (ionized hydrogen, H-alpha, 1040 seconds), green (ionized oxygen, 1200 seconds) and blue (ionized hydrogen, H-beta, 1040 seconds). The image spans 67 x 67 arc-seconds, corresponding to 55 x 55 light-years at the distance of the Large Magellanic Cloud (168,000 light-years).