Image: Flaming Star Nebula
NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team
An image of the Flaming Star Nebula, taken in infrared light by NASA's WISE space telescope.
updated 12/27/2010 11:17:01 AM ET 2010-12-27T16:17:01

NASA's WISE infrared telescope, which recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of its launch into space, has returned some stunning photos lately.

The new pictures from WISE short for Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which launched on Dec. 14, 2009 are dramatic, colorful images of interstellar clouds of gas and dust called nebulas.

The first photo depicts a structure known as the Flaming Star Nebula, which is about 1,500 light-years away in the constellation Auriga. At the nebula's heart is the star AE Aurigae, which appears to be ablaze, hence the name.

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AE Aurigae is a so-called runaway star, researchers said. It was likely born in the Trapezium Cluster, in the constellation Orion, but was booted out by a collision with a binary star system about 2.5 million years ago.

The enhanced colors seen in the image represent specific wavelengths of infrared light, which unaided human eyes cannot see. Hot stars scattered throughout the nebula show up as blue and cyan. Glowing gas appears green, while heated-up dust is primarily red, researchers said.

This WISE photo shows the Jellyfish Nebula also known as IC 443 which is about 5,000 light-years away from Earth, in the constellation Gemini. The jellyfish shape is a shell surrounding the remnants of a massive star that exploded 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, researchers said.

This huge supernova blast sent out shock waves that heated up surrounding gas and dust, forming the shell, researchers said. The different colors again, representations of various infrared wavelengths result from differences in the energy intensity of the shock wave, and light emissions by disparate materials.

This mosaic image features three nebulas that are part of the giant Orion Molecular Cloud, about 1,500 light-years from Earth. The image covers an area of the sky about three times as high and wide as the full moon, researchers said.

The Flame Nebula is the huge, luminous structure in the center of the image. What makes it shine so brightly is Alnitak, the blue star to the right of the central cloud. The Horsehead Nebula is also visible, as a faint bump on the lower-right side of the vertical dust ridge, researchers said.

The third nebula, called NGC 2023, can be seen as a bright circle in the lower half of the image. In the image, blue represents light emitted at 3.4-micron wavelengths, mainly from hot stars. Relatively cooler objects, such as the dust of the nebulas, appear green and red. Green represents 4.6-micron light and red represents 12-micron light, researchers said.

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This final photo shows the nebula IC 2944, also known as the Lambda Centauri, or Running Chicken nebula. It's about 5,800 light-years from Earth, in the constellation Centaurus.

The nebula is a stellar nursery, home to a new cluster of stars born from the cloud about 8 million years ago, researchers said. In the picture, blue and cyan represent infrared light with wavelengths of 3.4 and 4.6 microns, which is mostly light from stars. Green and red represent wavelengths of 12 and 22 microns, which is mostly light from warm dust; red signals temperatures lower than green.

The large, green ring-like structure near the middle of the image is about 77 light-years across, researchers said. It's formed by the combined winds of the young stars blowing back the material from which they were born.

Since its launch, the WISE telescope has catalogued hundreds of millions of asteroids, stars and galaxies.

In late September, after covering the sky about 1-1/2 times, WISE ran out of the coolant needed to chill its infrared detectors.

The spacecraft is still scanning the heavens with two of its four detectors, operating under an extended mission called NEOWISE. NEOWISE focuses primarily on comets and asteroids, including near-Earth objects bodies whose orbits pass relatively close to Earth's orbit around the sun.

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Photos: Wonders from WISE

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  1. Do the cosmic chicken

    NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, also known as the WISE space telescope, took this infrared image of a star-forming cloud called the Lambda Centauri Nebula. The glowing cloud of gas and dust has been nicknamed the Running Chicken Nebula, due to its distinctive shape. The nebula is about 5,800 light-years from Earth, and it's home to a new cluster of stars born nearly 8 million years ago. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / WISE team) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Three-nebula circus

    This mosaic image taken by NASA’s WISE space telescope features three nebulas - the Flame Nebula, the Horsehead Nebula and NGC 2023 - that are part of the giant Orion Molecular Cloud. The Flame Nebula is sparked by the bright blue star seen to the right of the central cloud. The Horsehead Nebula appears here as a faint bump on the lower right side of the vertical dust ridge, and NGC 2023 is the bright circle in the lower half of the image. () Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Flaming star

    NASA's WISE telescope captured this view of a runaway star racing away from its original home, about 1,500 light-years from Earth. Seen here surrounded by a glowing cloud of gas and dust, the star AE Aurigae appears to be on fire. Appropriately, the cloud is called the Flaming Star Nebula. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Jellyfish in space

    This oddly colorful nebula is the supernova remnant IC 443. Also known as the Jellyfish Nebula, IC 443 is particularly interesting because it provides a look into how stellar explosions interact with their environment. IC 443, which is about 5,000 light-years from Earth, can be found near the star Eta Geminorum, which lies near Castor, one of the twins in the constellation Gemini. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Two faces of Andromeda

    One of WISE's first images highlighted the Andromeda Galaxy. The top image shows our next-door galaxy's older stellar population in shades of blue. The image was taken using the shortest-wavelength camera on WISE. You can clearly see a pronounced warp in the spiral arm on the upper left side of the galaxy's disk. Scientists believe the warp is the result of a collision with another galaxy. The bottom image is a mosaic created by combining data from all four of WISE's infrared detectors. Once again, shades of blue highlight mature stars. The yellow and red areas indicate where dust has been heated by newborn, massive stars. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Witness to starbirth

    The star-forming cloud known as NGC 3603 is teeming with gas, dust and massive newborn stars in this image from WISE. The sky-mapping telescope, which surveys the whole sky in infrared light, is particularly sensitive to the warm dust that permeates star-forming clouds like this one. The cluster contains some of the most massive stars known. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Look! Up in the sky!

    Comet Siding Spring appears to streak across the sky like a superhero in this infrared image from WISE. The comet, also known as C/2007 Q3, was discovered in 2007 by observers in Australia. It made a close approach to Earth in October 2009 and is now heading back toward the outer reaches of the solar system. In this view, longer wavelengths of infrared light are red, and shorter wavelengths are blue. The comet appears red because it is 10 times cooler than the surrounding stars - for example, the bright blue star at lower left. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Gathering of galaxies

    This galaxy cluster, called Fornax because of its location in a constellation of the same name, is 60 million light-years from Earth, making it one of the closest galaxy clusters to the Milky Way. Clusters are large families of galaxies that are gravitationally bound together, containing enough matter to pull even distant galaxies toward them. The center of the cluster is dominated by the galaxy known as NGC 1399, a large spheroidal galaxy whose light is almost exclusively from old stars and thus appears blue. The most spectacular member of Fornax is the galaxy known as NGC 1365, a giant barred spiral galaxy, located in the lower right of the mosaic. (NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. NASA / JPL-Caltech / WISE team
    Above: Slideshow (8) Wonders from WISE
  2. Image:
    Y. Beletsky / ESO
    Slideshow (12) Month in Space: January 2014

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