NASA is celebrating Halloween with an incredible celestial treat. The space agency kicked off the festivities with an astounding view of the so-called “Jack-o’-lantern Nebula,” a far-flung cloud of gas and dust that looks surprisingly like a carved cosmic pumpkin. Lurking at the outer edge of the Milky Way, this incredible nebula is believed to have been sculpted by a massive star and was imaged by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope as it peered into the farther reaches of the galaxy.
The glorious view of the nebula, captured by Spitzer in infrared light, was released by NASA just ahead of Halloween, with a witty introduction that labeled the spooky gas formation as a “ghoulish gourd.”
According to the space agency, the star that is likely responsible for creating this incredible piece of cosmic artwork is a giant O-type star between 15 to 20 times more massive than our sun. The star blasts the nebula with an extreme amount of radiation, which is thought to have carved up fantastical shapes in the cloud of gas and dust — ones resembling two hollow eyes that appear to be staring back at us in the Spitzer photo, as well as a gaping mouth, seemingly screaming into space.
“A recent study of the region suggests that the powerful outflow of radiation and particles from the star likely swept the surrounding dust and gas outward, creating deep gouges in this cloud,” NASA explained.
The breathtaking Spitzer photo unveiled the nebula in three different wavelengths of infrared light — green, red, and blue. As NASA explained, the green and red colors represent dust formations glowing in different colors as they radiate at different temperatures. The blending of the two lights creates sparkling yellow hues, seen tracing the contours of the nebula’s eerie dusty filaments in the Spitzer image.
Meanwhile, the blue color highlights the hottest regions of the nebula, as well as the light coming from the myriad of stars in the background. Last but not least, the white color indicates regions “where the objects are bright in all three colors,” detailed NASA.
In the center of the nebula, Spitzer spotted the massive star, imaged as a bright white spot engulfed in a blazing shell of red dust and which appears to be igniting the cosmic pumpkin from within.
“Spitzer, which detects infrared light, saw the star glowing like a candle at the center of a hollowed-out pumpkin.”
The space agency also released a high-contrast version of the Spitzer photo that put a Halloween twist on the awe-inspiring nebula. By tweaking the contrast and making the red wavelength more pronounced, the image acquired an orange, pumpkin-toned hue that fit perfectly with the Halloween vibe. NASA combined the two snaps into an eerie GIF — and added a whimsical touch in the form of a Jack-o’-lantern drawing, one over-imposed on the Spitzer photo to highlight the nebula’s bizarre shape.
The Spitzer telescope imaged the peculiar-looking nebula and its massive star between 2004 and 2009, while scouring the fringes of the galaxy to look for young, infant stars. The purpose of this endeavor was to study the rate of star formation within the outer reaches of the Milky Way — and to uncover how this process differs in these regions in comparison to the rest of the galaxy.
As NASA explains, the outer areas of the Milky Way are known for harboring fewer interstellar clouds of gas and dust — the material from which new stars are churned out — which are colder and poorer in heavy elements, “including carbon, oxygen, and other ingredients for life as we know it,” than those in the center of the galaxy.
The conclusions of the Spitzer observations were detailed in a study published this summer in The Astrophysical Journal.