The One Wing Cosmic Butterfly

This ethereal image, captured from Chile by the Gemini International Observatory, an NSF NOIRLab program, looks as delicate as a butterfly’s wing. It is, however, a structure known as the Chamaeleon Infrared Nebula, which is located near the center of the gigantic dark cloud Chamaeleon I, one of the closest star-forming regions in our Milky Way.

This breathtaking visible light image, taken with the Gemini South telescope, looks like it’s ready to fly off the screen. This seemingly thin object is a gas vent known as the Chamaeleon Infrared Nebula – so called because it is bright in some infrared wavelengths of light, although it can also be seen in visible light, as in this image. Hidden in the center of this reflection nebula, and in the center of this image, is the nebula’s engine, a low-mass star (less massive than our Sun) that is eclipsed by a dark vertical band. Even if unseen, this cool young star emits rapidly moving streams of gas and has tunneled through the interstellar cloud from which the young star formed. Infrared and visible light emitted by the star escapes along this tunnel and spreads along its walls, giving rise to the thin reflection nebula.

The bright red object to the right of the center of the image marks where part of the rapid flow of gas lights up after colliding with the slower moving gas in the nebula. It is known as the Herbig-Haro (HH) object and has the designation HH 909A. Other Herbig-Haro objects were found along the star’s output axis, in addition to the left and right edges of the image.

Astronomers have suggested that the dark band at the center of the infrared nebula Chamaeleon is a circumstellar disk — a reservoir of gas and dust orbiting the star. Circumstellar disks are usually associated with young stars and provide the materials needed to build planets. The reason the disk appears as a band instead of a circle in this image is because it is on the edge, revealing only an edge to observers here on Earth. Astronomers believe that the nebula’s central star is a young stellar object embedded in the disk.

The background cloudiness, appearing blue in this image, is reflecting light from a nearby star located outside the frame.

The infrared nebula Chamaeleon resides within the larger dark cloud Chamaeleon I, which neighbors the dark clouds Chamaeleon II and Chamaeleon III. These three dark clouds collectively comprise the Chamaeleon Complex, a large area of ​​star formation that occupies almost the entirety of the Chamaeleon constellation in the southern sky.

The stunning detail in this image is thanks to the southern edition of the twin Gemini Multi-Object Spectrographs (GMOS), located atop Cerro Pachón in Chile at Gemini South, part of the Gemini International Observatory, a program of NSF’s NOIRLab. GMOS has imaging capabilities in addition to being a spectrograph [1] , which makes it a very versatile instrument.

“GMOS-South is the perfect instrument to make this observation, because of its field of view, which can capture the entire nebula very well, and because of its ability to capture the nebula’s ionized gas emission,” said the scientist German Gimeno, instrument scientist at NOIRLab.

The image was produced by NOIRLab’s Communication, Education and Engagement team as part of the NOIRLab Legacy Imaging Program.