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North America Nebula in Infrared Light
North America Nebula, NGC 7000, Pelican Nebula
Description: Emission nebula
Position (J2000): RA 20h 55m 33.8s Dec 44° 7' 50.9"
Distance: 2,000 Light Years
Field of View: 2.3 x 2.3 degrees
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/L. Rebull (SSC/Caltech)/D. De Martin
Release Date: February 10, 2011
Link to Spitzer combined image
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ABOUT THIS IMAGE:
This swirling landscape of stars is known as the North America nebula. In visible light, the region resembles North America, but in this new infrared view from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, the continent disappears.
Where did the continent go? The reason you don't see it in Spitzer's view has to do, in part, with the fact that infrared light can penetrate dust whereas visible light cannot. Dusty, dark clouds in the visible image become transparent in Spitzer's view. In addition, Spitzer's infrared detectors pick up the glow of dusty cocoons enveloping baby stars.
Clusters of young stars (about one million years old) can be found throughout the image. Slightly older but still very young stars (about 3 to 5 million years) are also liberally scattered across the complex, with concentrations near the "head" region of the Pelican nebula, which is located to the right of the North America nebula (upper right portion of this picture).
Some areas of this nebula are still very thick with dust and appear dark even in Spitzer's view. For example, the dark "river" in the lower left-center of the image -- in the Gulf of Mexico region -- are likely to be the youngest stars in the complex (less than a million years old).
The Spitzer image contains data from both its infrared array camera and multiband imaging photometer. Light with a wavelength of 3.6 microns has been color-coded blue; 4.5-micron light is blue-green; 5.8-micron and 8.0-micron light are green; and 24-micron light is red.
"One of the things that makes me so excited about this image is how different it is from the visible image, and how much more we can see in the infrared than in the visible," said Luisa Rebull of NASA's Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. Rebull is lead author of a paper about the observations, accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series. "The Spitzer image reveals a wealth of detail about the dust and the young stars here."
Rebull and her team have identified more than 2,000 new, candidate young stars in the region. There were only about 200 known before. Because young stars grow up surrounded by blankets of dust, they are hidden in visible-light images. Spitzer's infrared detectors pick up the glow of the dusty, buried stars.
A star is born inside a collapsing ball of gas and dust. As the material collapses inward, it flattens out into a disk that spins around together with the forming star like a spinning top. Jets of gas shoot perpendicularly away from the disk, above and below it. As the star ages, planets are thought to form out of the disk -- material clumps together, ultimately growing into mature planets. Eventually, most of the dust dissipates, aside from a tenuous ring similar to the one in our solar system, referred to as Zodiacal dust.
The new Spitzer image reveals all the stages of a star's young life, from the early years when it is swaddled in dust to early adulthood, when it has become a young parent to a family of developing planets. Sprightly "toddler" stars with jets can also be identified in Spitzer's view.
"This is a really busy area to image, with stars everywhere, from the North America complex itself, as well as in front of and behind the region," said Rebull. "We refer to the stars that are not associated with the region as contamination. With Spitzer, we can easily sort this contamination out and clearly distinguish between the young stars in the complex and the older ones that are unrelated."