The Flame Nebula is an emission nebula located in the Orion constellation, one of the biggest and brightest constellations in the northern hemisphere.
The nebula was discovered sometime in the late 1900’s by William Herschel. It is a cloud of gas and dust that was leftover when a star died. It glows because the energy of a nearby star is activating the gas and causing it to emit light.
This nebula, along with other areas of the Orion constellation, are star forming regions where new stars are born. Observing the nebula requires at least a 12 inch diameter telescope, but 16 inches will provide a much better view.
Facts about the Flame Nebula
- The Flame Nebula is around 1,000 light years away. This means it takes light 1,000 years to reach us from the nebula. What we see today on Earth is actually what the nebula really looked like 1,000 year ago.
- The size of the nebula is 6 light years across. This is about 10,000 times the distance from the Sun to Pluto. This means the Flame Nebula is 10,000 times bigger than our solar system.
- The fastest spacecraft ever built, the Parker Solar Probe, would take 20,000 years to travel across the entire Flame Nebula. And that’s at a speed of 213,000 miles per hour!
- The Flame Nebula glows because nearby stars are releasing ultraviolet light that causes hydrogen in the nebula gas cloud to lose an electron. When this electron recombines with the hydrogen, it releases the light we see.
- Because most of the light we see from the Flame Nebula is red, scientists know that much of the gas is hydrogen. Other elements like oxygen and nitrogen make different colors and require more energy to glow.
- Emission nebula, like the Flame Nebula, are different from the other type of nebulae called reflection nebula. This is because reflection nebula only reflect light from nearby stars, but emission nebula actually absorb energy from nearby stars and then make their own light.
- One of these nearby stars, the brightest, is called Alnitak and is actually a triple star system, or three stars that are all orbiting each other. The Alnitak system is composed of a blue supergiant star that is twenty times larger than the Sun, and two much smaller stars that orbit it. Alnitak is the left-most star in the asterism Orion’s belt.
Star Forming Regions
- The Flame Nebula is part of a star forming region called the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. This is the closest star forming region to our solar system. This region has a lot of young stars. These have formed when clouds of gas become more and more dense because of gravity and eventually form a star.
- Inside the nebula is a group of hundreds of very young stars that are about 200,000 to 1.5 million years old. This is very young for a star. Our own Sun is 4.6 billion years old, or about 3,000 times older than these young stars.
- Much of our knowledge about the inside of the Flame Nebula comes from looking at X-rays, not visible light. This is because the nebula has a shell of gas and dust that blocks our view of the inside. Scientists use X-rays, just like doctors do, to look inside of the nebula. This is how we know it is full of young stars.
- The Orion constellation, where the Flame Nebula is found, can be seen by almost everyone on the planet. \except for those in Antarctica.
- The discoverer of the Flame Nebula, William Herschel, also discovered the planet Uranus and his name was given to the largest space telescope, the William Herschel Space Telescope.
- Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona – https://www.constellation-guide.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Flame-Nebula.jpg