Images of one of the closest star-forming regions to Earth have been captured by the Gemini South Telescope. Gases are seen streaming out to form a set of butterfly wings, but only one is illuminated, leaving the other barely visible. The reflection nebula captured here lies in what is known as the Chamaeleon Infrared Nebula, drawing its name from the constellation in which it lies, rather than a changing color scheme.
The Orion Nebula is a frequent stopping point on tours of the sky by both amateur and professional astronomers, as a region where stars are born out of clouds of gas and dust. Yet despite being the most famous and most visible star formation nebula, Orion is by no means the closest. At around 500 light-years away, the Chamaeleon Complex is less than half the distance to the Orion Nebula, yet has attracted almost none of the attention.
The giant Gemini South telescope has taken a small step to changing that with this set of images, taken with the Gemini Multi-Object Spectrographs. It shows a newly formed star, suspected to be surrounded by a circumstellar disk from which planets will eventually form. Because the suspected disk is edge-on to us it is almost invisible except as a dark band.
There are two major reasons for the Chamaeleon's obscurity. One is location – it cannot be seen from most of the Northern Hemisphere. Just as importantly, Orion is birthing giants while the Chamaeleon Complex is forming small, cool stars that are much more difficult to see.
As the photograph demonstrates, however, small can be beautiful. The low-mass star in the middle of this image is pushing out streams of partially ionized gas that have forced their way through the interstellar cloud from which they formed, sculpting it. The light of the star illuminates the walls of the cone created by this process, creating the reflection nebula as the light bounces off the dust.
The photograph seen here is taken in visible light, but the gas glows brighter still in infrared. If the soon-to-be-launched JWST survives its weeks of terror, the Chamaeleon will be one of the many objects whose infrared emissions will represent a tempting target for a telescope operating primarily at wavelengths too long for the human eye.
Like a set of Russian dolls, the Chamaeleon Infrared Nebula is part of the Chamaeleon I dark cloud, which in turn sits inside the Chamaeleon Complex, which takes up most of the small southern constellation of the Chamaeleon and extends into some neighbors. Lacking any bright stars or objects of interest aside from the complex, the Chamaeleon is one of the least-known constellations.
"GMOS-South is the perfect instrument to make this observation, because of its field of view, which can nicely capture the whole nebula, and because of its ability to capture the emission from the nebula’s ionized gas," said NOIRLab instrument scientist German Gimeno in a statement.