An all-time favorite of skywatchers on both hemispheres, the Lagoon Nebula Messier 8, or M8 is among the most striking examples of a stellar nursery in our neighborhood of the Milky Way galaxy. Visible in small telescopes and binoculars its fuzzy glow reveals the type of chaotic environment where new stars are born.
Argentinean astronomers Julia Arias Universidad de La Serena and Rodolfo Barbá Universidad de La Serena and ICATE-CONICET have used the Gemini South telescope in Chile, to obtain a dramatic new image of the nursery that could be described as psychedelic. Actually, since M8 is located some 5,000 lightyears away, the multi-hued scene is truly a psychedelic “flashback” as its photons had to travel through space for that same number of years before they reached the gigantic Gemini 8-meter mirror. Astronomers sometimes call the region imaged the “Southern Cliff” because it resembles a sharp drop-off. Beyond the “cliff,” light from a spattering of young background stars in the upper left of the image shines through the cloudscape.
Arias and Barbá obtained the imaging data to explore the evolutionary relationship between the newborn stars and what are known as Herbig-Haro HH objects. HH objects form when young stars eject large amounts of fast-moving gas as they grow. This gas plows into the surrounding nebula, producing bright shock fronts that glow as the gas is heated by friction and surrounding gas is excited by the high-energy radiation of nearby hot stars. The researchers found a dozen of these HH objects in the image, spanning sizes that range from a few thousand astronomical units about a trillion kilometers to 1.4 parsecs 4.6 light-years, i.e. a little greater than the distance from the Sun to its nearest neighbor Proxima Centauri.