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A stunningly beautiful close-up of the Orion Nebula, in one GIF

This animation zooms 1,350 light-years into the Orion Nebula, a cradle of star formation

Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Our galaxy is mind-blowingly huge. It has more than a billion stars and at least 100 billion planets. And it is just one of 2 trillion galaxies in the universe.

It often can be difficult to imagine the enormity of it all. This GIF, adapted from a European Southern Observatory video by a Reddit user, offers a unique experience: a journey through a dense star formation we usually only see in two dimensions.

The GIF starts on an image of the Milky Way as seen from Earth, and then rockets 1,350 light-years to a wondrous slice of the sky called the Orion Nebula, a dense region of star formation. The image of the final destination is the “deepest and most comprehensive view of the Orion Nebula to date,” the ESO reported in July when it released the video. (It also has a video to show how different the nebula looks in both visible light and infrared.)

Zooming in makes the arrival at the final image of the nebula (see below) all the more sublime. It’s one small jewel cast in a vast ocean impossibly far away.

Astronomers study the Orion Nebula — which is tucked beneath the “sword” in the constellation Orion — to learn how star systems like our own form.

“Billions of stars form in molecular clouds like these across the galaxy, including, most likely, our own Sun,” astronomer Phil Plait explains in a column for Slate. “It’s possible we were born in such a chaotic nursery, seeded from material between the stars, and the actual birth perhaps induced by a collision between.”

The new ESO images reveal the nebula contains around 10 times more planet-size objects than previously known, prompting astronomers to wonder what role these objects play in star formation.

“If active regions of interstellar space, like the Orion Nebula, form lots of small objects as well as massive stars, it could mean there are many more planet-size objects in the universe than previously thought,” reported in July.

And there’s more to this image than what meets the eye, as Plait explains:

The glowing part of the nebula is actually just a small part of a much larger complex called the Orion Molecular Cloud. It’s a dense, cold cloud of gas and dust, invisible to the eye, and stars are forming in it. A clutch of stars happened to form near the edge of the cloud, and once they switched on after birth their intense radiation began carving enormous cavities in the gas, chewing away at the material in the cloud.

ESO/H. Drass et al.

At 1,350 light-years away, the Orion Nebula is still close enough for our telescopes to observe in detail. And the universe is likely littered with similar such star nurseries, which we may also one day get to explore with even more powerful telescopes.

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