The infrared vision of the Hubble Space Telescope's Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (NICMOS) is providing a dramatic new look at the beautiful Orion Nebula which contains the nearest nursery for massive stars. For comparison, Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) image on the left shows a large part of the nebula as it appears in visible light. The heart of the giant Orion molecular cloud, OMC-1, is included in the relatively dim and featureless area inside the blue outline near the top of the image. Light from a few foreground stars seen in the WFPC2 image provides only a hint of the many other stars embedded in this dense cloud.
NICMOS's infrared vision reveals a chaotic, active star birth region (as seen in the right-hand image). Here, stars and glowing interstellar dust, heated by and scattering the intense starlight, appear yellow-orange. Emission by excited hydrogen molecules appears blue. The image is oriented with north up and east to the left. The diagonal extent of the image is about 0.4 light-years. Some details are as small as the size of our solar system.
The brightest object in the image is a massive young star called BN (Becklin-Neugebauer). Blue "fingers" of molecular hydrogen emission indicate the presence of violent outflows, probably produced by a young star or stars still embedded in dust (located to the lower left, southeast, of BN). The outflowing material may also produce the crescent-shaped "bow shock" on the edge of a dark feature north of BN and the two bright "arcs" south of BN. The detection of several sets of closely spaced double stars in these observations further demonstrates NICMOS's ability to see fine details not possible from ground-based telescopes.
Credits: NICMOS:NASA, Rodger Thompson, Marcia Rieke, Glenn Schneider, Susan Stolovy (University of Arizona); Edwin Erickson (SETI Institute/NASA Ames); David Axon (STScI) WFPC2: NASA, C. Robert O'Dell, Shui Kwan Wong (Rice University)