Flight Through Orion Nebula in Visible and Infrared Light

Visible Visualisation of the Orion Nebula.

Release date: Jan 11, 2018 10:00 AM (EST)

By combining the visible and infrared capabilities of the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, astronomers and visualisation specialists from NASA’s Universe of Learning program have created a spectacular, three-dimensional, fly-through movie of the magnificent Orion nebula, a nearby stellar nursery. Using actual scientific data along with Hollywood techniques, a team at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California, has produced the best and most detailed multi-wavelength visualisation yet of the Orion nebula.



Credit: Space Telescope Science Institute#

NASA YouTube video





Astronomers and visualisation specialists from NASA’s Universe of Learning program have combined visible and infrared vision of the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes to create an unprecedented, three-dimensional, fly-through view of the picturesque Orion Nebula, a nearby star-forming region. Viewers experience this nearby stellar nursery “close up and personally” as the new digital visualisation ferries them among newborn stars, glowing clouds heated by intense radiation, and tadpole-shaped gaseous envelopes surrounding protoplanetary disks.

Using actual scientific imagery and other data, combined with Hollywood techniques, a team at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, and the Caltech/IPAC in Pasadena, California, has created the best and most detailed multi-wavelength visualisation yet of this photogenic nebula. The fly-through enables people to experience and learn about the universe in an exciting new way. The three-minute movie, which shows the Orion Nebula in both visible and infrared light, was released to the public today.

It is available to planetariums and other centres of informal learning worldwide to help audiences explore fundamental questions in science such as, “How did we get here?” “Being able to fly through the nebula’s tapestry in three dimensions gives people a much better sense of what the universe is really like,” explained the Space Telescope Science Institute’s visualisation scientist Frank Summers, who led the team that developed the movie. “By adding depth and structure to the amazing images, this fly-through helps elucidate the universe for the public, both educating and inspiring,” added Summers.

Supernova 1987A within the Large Magellanic Cloud.

“Looking at the universe in infrared light gives striking context for the more familiar visible-light views. This movie provides a uniquely immersive chance to see how new features appear as we shift to wavelengths of light normally invisible to our eyes,” said Robert Hurt, lead visualisation scientist at IPAC. One of the sky’s brightest nebula's, the Orion Nebula is visible to the naked eye. It appears as the middle “star” in the sword of the constellation Orion, the Hunter, and is located about 1,350 light-years away.

At only 2 million years old, the nebula is an ideal laboratory for studying young stars and stars that are still forming. It offers a glimpse of what might have happened when the Sun was born 4.6 billion years ago. The three-dimensional video provides a look at the fantastic topography of the nebula. A torrent of ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds from the massive, central stars of the Trapezium star cluster have carved out a cavernous bowl-like cavity in the wall of a giant cloud of cold molecular hydrogen laced with dust.






Astronomers and visualisers worked together to make a three-dimensional model of the depths of this cavernous region, like plotting mountains and valleys on the ocean floor. Colourful Hubble and Spitzer images were then overlaid on the terrain. The scientific visualisation video takes the viewer on a breathtaking flight through the nebula, following the contours of the gas and dust. By toggling between the Hubble and Spitzer’s views, the movie shows strikingly different details of the Orion Nebula. Hubble sees objects that glow in visible light, which are typically in the thousands of degrees.

Spitzer is sensitive to cooler objects with temperatures of just hundreds of degrees. Spitzer’s infrared vision pierces through obscuring dust to see stars embedded deep into the nebula, as well as fainter and less massive stars, which are brighter in the infrared than in visible light. The new visualisation helps people experience how the two telescopes provide a more complex and complete picture of the nebula. The visualisation is one of a new generation of products and experiences being developed by the NASA’s Universe of Learning program.

The effort combines a direct connection to the science and scientists of NASA’s Astrophysics missions with attention to audience needs to enable youth, families, and lifelong learners to explore fundamental questions in science, experience how science is done, and discover the universe for themselves. The three-dimensional interpretation is guided by scientific knowledge and scientific intuition. Starting with the two-dimensional Hubble and Spitzer images, Summers and Hurt worked with experts to analyse the structure inside the nebula. They first created a visible-light surface, and then an underlying structure of the infrared features.

To give the nebula its ethereal feel, Summers wrote a special rendering code for efficiently combining the tens of millions of semi-transparent elements of the gas. The customised code allows Summers to run this and other visualisations on desktop workstations, rather than on a super-computing cluster. The other components of the nebula were isolated into image layers and modelled separately. These elements included stars, protoplanetary disks, bow shocks, and the thin gas in front of the nebula called “the veil.” After rendering, these layers and the gaseous nebula are brought back together to create the visualisation.

The three-dimensional structures serve as scientifically reasonable approximations for imagining the nebula. “The main thing is to give the viewer an experiential understanding, so that they have a way to interpret the images from telescopes,” explained Summers. “It’s a really wonderful thing when they can build a mental model in their head to transform the two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional scene.”






This movie demonstrates the power of multi-wavelength astronomy. It helps audiences understand how science is done how and why astronomers use multiple regions of the electromagnetic spectrum to explore and learn about our universe. It is also whetting astronomers’ appetites for what they will see with NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, which will show much finer details of the deeper, infrared features. More visualisations and connections between the science of nebula's and learners can be explored through other products produced by NASA’s Universe of Learning such as ViewSpace.

ViewSpace is a video exhibit currently at almost 200 museums and planetariums across the United States. Visitors can go beyond video to explore the images produced by space telescopes with interactive tools now available for museums and planetariums. NASA’s Universe of Learning materials are based upon work supported by NASA under award number NNX16AC65A to the Space Telescope Science Institute, working in partnership with Caltech/IPAC, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and Sonoma State University.


Credits Image: NASA, ESA, F. Summers, G. Bacon, Z. Levay, J. DePasquale, L. Hustak, L. Frattare, M. Robberto and M. Gennaro (STScI), and R. Hurt (Caltech/IPAC) Video: NASA, ESA, F. Summers, G. Bacon, Z. Levay, J. DePasquale, L. Hustak, L. Frattare, and M. Robberto (STScI), R. Hurt (Caltech/IPAC), M. Kornmesser (ESA), and A. Fujii; Acknowledgement: R. Gendler; Music: “Dvorak Serenade for Strings Op22 in E Major larghetto,” performed by The Advent Chamber Orchestra, CC BY-SA

Comments