Nestled in a dark and often neglected corner of the Orion constellation (“The Hunter”), the Cosmic Bat nebula is aglow with a multitude of nascent stars. Scientifically known as NGC 1788, this striking nebula haunts the night sky some 2,000 light-years away from Earth and is often referenced by astronomers as a hidden treasure.
Located just a few degrees away from the bright stars in Orion’s belt, the Cosmic Bat nebula slips away from sight amid the glitter of such dazzling stars. While its “hazy wings” and opaque dust clouds may be concealed to the naked eye, since they are too faint and far-flung to be seen without a telescope, the bat-shaped nebula has unveiled its secrets to the European Southern Observatory (ESO).
This cosmic gem was recently imaged by the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in what ESO has described as “the most detailed portrait” of the Cosmic Bat nebula taken to date. The stunning image was released by the observatory earlier this week and shows the Cosmic Bat nebula as it’s never been seen before.
This enigmatic structure has unraveled its mysteries to the sharp eye of VLT’s FORS2 spectrograph, which is one of ESO’s most versatile instruments, capable of imaging large areas of the sky in exceptional detail. In the breathtaking photo, captured on the occasion of the spectrograph’s 20th anniversary, the Cosmic Bat nebula appears to be taking flight, revealing its soft colors and beautifully textured clouds of gas and dust.
This is not the first time that ESO has observed the Cosmic Bat nebula. This formidable structure was previously imaged in 2010 by the 2.2-meter telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. However, the new photo showcases the bat-shaped nebula more clearly than it has ever been seen before. The VLT has managed to capture minute details of the nebula’s dusty wings, picturing them “frozen in flight.”
The interesting thing about this nebula is that it doesn’t emit light, but rather it is illuminated by a cluster of bright stars found deep within its core. This qualifies it as a reflection nebula, as ESO explained in 2010.
“NGC 1788 is a reflection nebula, whose gas and dust scatter the light coming from a small cluster of young stars in such a way that the tenuous glow forms a shape reminiscent of a gigantic bat spreading its wings.”
The Cosmic Bat nebula is home to extremely young stars that have only been around for about 1 million years. By comparison, the sun is 4.5-billion-years-old.
This fascinating nebula owes its striking bat-like silhouette to the bright stars in its vicinity. According to the ESO, the nebula’s distinctive clouds of gas and dust were carved out by streams of scorching plasma coming from nearby stars.
“Even though this ghostly nebula in Orion appears to be isolated from other cosmic objects, astronomers believe that it was shaped by powerful stellar winds from the massive stars beyond it.”