A rendering of the NGC 2264 as captured by telescopes from NASA and the
National Science Foundation. (X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: T.A. Rector
(NRAO/AUI/NSF and NOIRLab/NSF/AURA) and B.A. Wolpa (NOIRLab/NSF/AURA);
Infrared: NASA/NSF/IPAC/CalTech/Univ. of Massachusetts; Image
Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/L. Frattare & J.Major)
Even thousands of light-years away from Earth, there’s a cluster of stars getting into the Christmas spirit. Images released by NASA this week show a grouping of stars from the NGC 2264 cluster illuminated in bright green, blue and white lights across its Milky Way celestial skies.
Commonly referred to as the “Christmas Tree Cluster,” the formation has a faint triangle-shaped base and stems extending out on its sides, making its structure resemble that of the popular Norway spruce that’s become a holiday staple and tradition.
Researchers at NASA have compiled renderings using data from two telescopes — including from the agency’s own Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the National Science Foundation’s Wisconsin-Indiana-Yale-NOAO (WIYN) Observatory — to show the cluster in a spitting pine green. They also used infrared data from the Two Micron All Sky Survey, an astronomical survey of the sky in infrared light, to animate the stars within the cluster with twinkling bright blue and white dots. The image has also been rotated 160 degrees from its original northern point to better stand as a Christmas tree.
The nebula, a cloud of dust and gas in space, is situated some 2,500 light-years away in the constellation Monoceros, a faint constellation on the celestial equator, according to research from NASA. Many of the stars within the NGC 2264 formation are both smaller and larger than the sun, with some being less than a tenth the sun’s mass.
The formation was discovered in the 1780′s by German-British astronomer William Herschel, and extends about seven light-years in length. The surrounding region is also a hotbed for new stars that have formed, which have gradually eroded the nebula over millions of years, NASA said.
There are countless nebulas that often resemble objects or animals on Earth, such as jellyfish, owls and even an elephant trunk. The NGC 6302 formation, found in the constellation Scorpius, is referred to as the Butterfly Nebula for its fluttering gas clouds that resemble wings.
Scientists oftentimes study nebulas, as well as their magnetic fields, which can be generated by particles within a star’s interior, to analyze their behaviors, and specifically what happens when stars reach the end of their lives and evolve into nebulas.
Magnetic fields generated from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray telescopes have also helped produce similar image renderings, such as a ghastly purple and white hand from the nebula of a supergiant star, 16,000 light-years from Earth, that collapsed into a neutron star, according to a NASA news release.