Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2010 April 6
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A Fox Fur, a Unicorn, and a Christmas Tree
Credit & Copyright: Kerry-Ann Lecky Hepburn (Weather and Sky Photography) & Stefano Cancelli (AstroGarage)

Explanation: What do the following things have in common: a cone, the fur of a fox, and a Christmas tree? Answer: they all occur in the constellation of the unicorn (Monoceros). Pictured above as a star forming region cataloged as NGC 2264, the complex jumble of cosmic gas and dust is about 2,700 light-years distant and mixes reddish emission nebulae excited by energetic light from newborn stars with dark interstellar dust clouds. Where the otherwise obscuring dust clouds lie close to the hot, young stars they also reflect starlight, forming blue reflection nebulae. The wide mosaic spans about 3/4 degree or nearly 1.5 full moons, covering 40 light-years at the distance of NGC 2264. Its cast of cosmic characters includes the Fox Fur Nebula, whose convoluted pelt lies at the upper left, bright variable star S Mon immersed in the blue-tinted haze just below the Fox Fur, and the Cone Nebula at the far right. Of course, the stars of NGC 2264 are also known as the Christmas Tree star cluster. The triangular tree shape traced by the stars appears sideways here, with its apex at the Cone Nebula and its broader base centered near S Mon.

Tomorrow's picture: open space

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