Hubble at 23: Horsehead Nebula in a New Light

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The Hubble Space Telescope has been in orbit for 23 years and, to celebrate this milestone, the space telescope has revisited the famous Horsehead Nebula in the constellation of Orion.

But on this particular observing session, Hubble had a little help from another space telescope friend.

PHOTOS: Hubble's Latest Mind Blowing Cosmic Pictures

We may be familiar with the majestic pillar of dust and gas, but this view was imaged using Hubble's high-resolution Wide Field Camera 3, which views the universe in near-infrared wavelengths. See the comparison of Hubble's infrared view and the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) optical view of the nebula below:

A comparison between Hubble's infrared view (left) of the Horsehead Nebula and an optical view by the ground-based European Southern Observatory (ESO).
NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI); ESO

Usually, the thick dust obscures the baby stars forming inside the Horsehead's distinctive pillar, but Hubble's infrared imaging allows the hot stars cocooned inside to be seen. Also, the nebula's outermost 'edge' appears to glow as it is illuminated by a nearby hot star.

In addition to Hubble's view, sibling space telescope, the European Herschel space observatory, imaged the region surrounding the Horsehead Nebula in an even more extreme wavelength: far-infrared. The Herschel observation not only picks out violent regions of starbirth in the Orion B molecular cloud region, it also provides a context to the scale of the Horsehead feature jutting out.

This composite image by the Hubble and Herschel space telescopes shows the Orion B molecular cloud region as observed in different portions of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Upper panel: ESA/Herschel/PACS, SPIRE/N. Schneider, Ph. André, V. Könyves (CEA Saclay, France) for the "Gould Belt survey" Key Programme; Lower right panel: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2/Davide De Martin; Lower left panel: NASA, ESA, and STScI/AURA

23 years since Hubble was released into orbit from the cargo bay of space shuttle Discovery (during the STS-31 mission), the telescope hasn't only brought us incredible views of the cosmos, it has transformed our understanding of the underlying science behond objects such as the Horsehead Nebula.

As this new, infrared view of the Horsehead shows us, we have a lot to look forward to when NASA's James Webb Space Telescope -- a powerful infrared observatory -- is launched in 2018.

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