'Cosmic wildfires' burn bright in new photo of the Flame Nebula

The "wildfires" in this image are actually Orion's Flame Nebula and its surroundings captured in radio waves. The image was taken with the ESO-operated Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), located in Chile's Atacama Desert. (Image credit: ESO/Th. Stanke & ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit)

A fiery new photograph of the Flame Nebula depicts the emissions from brand-new stars, burning through space like cosmic wildfires. 

These wildfires don't actually burn hot — the orange and yellow regions captured in this image are actually only a few tens of degrees warmer than absolute zero, the point at which the movement of atoms and other fundamental particles freezes, according to the European Southern Observatory (ESO). But the emissions are revealing. By pointing the SuperCam instrument aboard the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment in the Chilean desert at this region, researchers were able to discover a brand-new nebula and explore two dusty interstellar clouds, Messier 78 and NGC 2071. 

The new nebula, a spherical cloud that the researchers dubbed the "Cow Nebula," is described in a paper to be published in a forthcoming issue of the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. 

Nebulas are interstellar clouds of gas and dust that often serve as the birthplace of new stars, which form from these cosmic ingredients. The Flame Nebula sits in the region of the constellation Orion, approximately 1,300 to 1,600 light-years away from Earth. It's an emission nebula, with young stars at the center spewing radiation that gives the surrounding dust a fiery glow. The color in this newly released image is created by radio waves emitted by carbon monoxide gas in the cloud. 

The SuperCam instrument, installed in 2014, uses carbon monoxide to map star-birthing gas clouds. These observations were collected by the APEX Large CO Heterodyne Orion Legacy Survey (ALCOHOLS), led by astronomer Thomas Stanke. 

The Flame Nebula often catches the eye of astronomy photographers, and it was the subject of one of the best astronomy photos of 2021. (And, for that matter, of 2019.) Imaging the nebula in different wavelengths enables researchers to spot structures and stars that would otherwise be hidden by a curtain of dust. 

"As astronomers like to say, whenever there is a new telescope or instrument around, observe Orion: there will always be something new and interesting to discover," Stanke said in the ESO statement.

Originally published on Live Science

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.