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Prawn Nebula Photo Offers Glimpse of ‘Cosmic Recycling’

Prawn Nebula
The rich patchwork of gas clouds in this new image make up part of a huge stellar nursery nicknamed the Prawn Nebula. ESO

A new view of the Prawn Nebula shows "cosmic recycling" at work: Glowing clusters of newborn stars illuminate surrounding gas, expelled from an earlier stellar generation, which will eventually form into even newer stars.

The 2.2-meter telescope at the European Southern Obsevatory's La Silla Observatory in Chile snapped a choice section of the reddish nebula studded by young blue stars in a newly released image. The nebula, also called Gum 56 and IC 4628, is hard to see with the naked eye although it's around 250 light-years across — it is very faint, and mostly emits light at wavelengths not visible to humans.

That invisibility conceals a lot of action, as new stars form from the stellar nursery of the nebula's gas and debris.

Horsehead Nebula of a different color

"The material forming these new stars includes the remains of the most massive stars from an older generation that have already ended their lives and ejected their material in violent supernova explosions," ESO officials said in a statement. "Thus the cycle of stellar life and death continues."

When the dust and gas grows dense enough, a portion will collapse down into the beginnings of a star.

Large clouds of charged hydrogen gas provide the red glow to the nebula. As ultraviolet energy is emitted from the young stars, it hits the nearby hydrogen and excites it, prompting the release of light with hydrogen's distinct reddish tinge.

The source of most of that radiation is a pair of rare, extremely bright blue giant stars (out of view in this photo). The huge, powerful stars have short life spans — only a million years or so before exploding into a supernova — and they generally appear in areas with rapid star growth.

This is a condensed version of an article that appeared on Space.com. Read the original story here. Email Sarah Lewin at slewin@space.com or follow her @SarahExplains. Follow us @Spacedotcom, Facebook and Google+.

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