Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Ghost Head Nebula

NGC 2080. Credit: Mohammad Heydari-Malayeri (Observatoire de Paris) et al

This image from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope reveals a vibrant green and red nebula far from Earth, where nature seems to have put on the traditional colours of the season. These colours, produced by the light emitted by oxygen and hydrogen, help astronomers investigate the star-forming processes in nebulas such as NGC 2080.

The light from the nebula captured in this image is emitted by two elements, hydrogen and oxygen. The red and the blue light are from regions of hydrogen gas heated by nearby stars. The green light on the left comes from glowing oxygen. The energy to illuminate the green light is supplied by a powerful stellar wind (a stream of high-speed particles) coming from a massive star just outside the image.

The white region in the center is a combination of all three emissions and indicates a core of hot, massive stars in this star-formation region. The intense emission from these stars has carved a bowl-shaped cavity in the surrounding gas.

In the white region, the two bright areas (the "eyes of the ghost") - named A1 (left) and A2 (right) - are very hot, glowing "blobs" of hydrogen and oxygen. The bubble in A1 is produced by the hot, intense radiation and powerful stellar wind from a single massive star. A2 has a more complex appearance due to the presence of more dust, and it contains several hidden, massive stars. The massive stars in A1 and A2 must have formed within the last 10,000 years, since their natal gas shrouds are not yet disrupted by the powerful radiation of the newly born stars.

This "enhanced colour" picture spanning 55 light years in the above image is composed of three narrow-band-filter images obtained with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. The colours are red (ionized hydrogen, H-alpha, 1040 seconds), green (ionized oxygen, 1200 seconds) and blue (ionized hydrogen, H-beta, 1040 seconds).

The Ghost Head Nebula NGC 2080 is a star forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way.

Halloween's ancient & astronomical origins date back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).
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The Celts, who lived 2,000 years ago in the area that is now Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, celebrated their new year on November 1. This day marked the end of summer and the harvest and the beginning of the dark, cold winter, a time of year that was often associated with human death. Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead became blurred. On the night of October 31, they celebrated Samhain, when it was believed that the ghosts of the dead returned to earth. In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids, or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort and direction during the long, dark winter.

To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities.

During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other's fortunes. When the celebration was over, they re-lit their hearth fires, which they had extinguished earlier that evening, from the sacred bonfire to help protect them during the coming winter.

By A.D. 43, Romans had conquered the majority of Celtic territory. In the course of the four hundred years that they ruled the Celtic lands, two festivals of Roman origin were combined with the traditional Celtic celebration of Samhain.

The first was Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead. The second was a day to honor Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple and the incorporation of this celebration into Samhain probably explains the tradition of "bobbing" for apples that is practiced today on Halloween.

By the 800s, the influence of Christianity had spread into Celtic lands. In the seventh century, Pope Boniface IV designated November 1 All Saints' Day, a time to honor saints and martyrs. It is widely believed today that the pope was attempting to replace the Celtic festival of the dead with a related, but church-sanctioned holiday. The celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas (from Middle English Alholowmesse meaning All Saints' Day) and the night before it, the night of Samhain, began to be called All-hallows Eve and, eventually, Halloween. Even later, in A.D. 1000, the church would make November 2 All Souls' Day, a day to honor the dead. It was celebrated similarly to Samhain, with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. Together, the three celebrations, the eve of All Saints', All Saints', and All Souls', were called Hallowmas.

Seeing Colour in Nebulae from A Quantum Diaries Survivor
Celestial Mandrill Is A Cosmic Ghost from Scientific Blogging
Astronomers simulate life & death in the Universe from Science Daily

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