Tides of light: M8 in spectacular detail (Image credit: NASA/ESA)

Gorgeous! Spectacular! Awesome! What else can I say about this stunning Turneresque image of the Lagoon Nebula (M8)?

A typical stellar nursery, M8 lies about 4300 light years (1320 parsecs) from Earth in the constellation Sagittarius. About a hundred light years (31 parsecs) wide, it is actually several times as big as the closer and better known Orion Nebula (M42). It was first compared to a dark lagoon by the Irish-born astronomer Agnes Clerke (1842-1907). She was actually referring to a dark lane of dust running through the nebula (not visible in the close-up image) but the name has stuck. Alert astronomy fans noted the Lagoon Nebula’s  use as a celestial landmark in an episode of Battlestar Galactica, but deplored its fictional relocation to Scorpius.

To the unaided eye the nebula is faint and greyish, but in the image it blazes with colour. This is of course illusory.  This is a false colour image: light from glowing hydrogen is shown as red, light from ionised nitrogen appears as green and light which passed through a yellow filter is coloured blue. This trick reveals the delicate structures formed as the tempest blast of powerful ultra violet radiation from young stars eats away the hydrogen cloud the stars originally formed from.

Such studies of M8 have confirmed that stars form by accretion of matter from the surrounding clouds of gas and dust as theorised by Kant, Laplace and others more than two centuries ago. We are slowly learning the secrets of the stars.

1 Comment

Wonders of the August Night Sky | Astronotes · October 15, 2013 at 03:47

[…] gem that should not be overlooked is Messier 8, or M8 for short, also known by the name the Lagoon Nebula. To find a deep space object 4100 light years away from Earth yet bright enough to be seen with the […]

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