The Wings of the Seagull Nebula


This new image from Europian Southern Observatory (ESO) shows a section of a cloud of dust and glowing gas called the Seagull Nebula. These wispy red clouds form part of the “wings” of the celestial bird and this picture reveals an intriguing mix of dark and glowing red clouds, weaving between bright stars. This new view was captured by the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.eso1306a

Running along the border between the constellations of Canis Major (The Great Dog) and Monoceros (The Unicorn) in the southern sky, the Seagull Nebula is a huge cloud mostly made of hydrogen gas. It’s an example of what astronomers refer to as an HII region. Hot new stars form within these clouds and their intense ultraviolet radiation causes the surrounding gas to glow brightly.

The reddish hue in this image is a telltale sign of the presence of ionised hydrogen [1]. The Seagull Nebula, known more formally as IC 2177, is a complex object with a bird-like shape that is made up of three large clouds of gas — Sharpless 2-292 (eso1237) forms the “head”, this new image shows part of Sharpless 2-296, which comprises the large “wings”, and Sharpless 2-297 is a small, knotty addition to the tip of the gull’s right “wing” [2].

These objects are all entries in the Sharpless nebula catalogue, a list of over 300 glowing clouds of gas compiled by American astronomer Stewart Sharpless in the 1950s. Before he published this catalogue, Sharpless was a graduate student at the Yerkes Observatory near Chicago, USA, where he and his colleagues published observational work that helped to show that the Milky Way is a spiral galaxy with vast, curved arms.

Spiral galaxies can contain thousands of HII regions, almost all of which are concentrated along their spiral arms. The Seagull Nebula lies in one of the spiral arms of the Milky Way. But this is not the case for all galaxies; while irregular galaxies do contain HII regions, these are jumbled up throughout the galaxy, and elliptical galaxies are different yet again — appearing to lack these regions altogether. The presence of HII regions indicates that active star formation is still in progress in a galaxy.

This image of Sharpless 2-296 was captured by the Wide Field Imager (WFI), a large camera mounted on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. It shows only a small section of the nebula, a large cloud that is furiously forming hot stars in its interior. The frame shows Sharpless 2-296 lit up by several particularly bright young stars — there are many other stars scattered across the region, including one so bright that stands out as the gull’s “eye” in pictures of the entire complex.

Wide-field images of this region of the sky show a multitude of interesting astronomical objects. The young bright stars within the nebula are part of the nearby star-forming region of CMa R1 in the constellation of Canis Major, which is filled with bright stars and clusters. Also lying close to the Seagull Nebula is the Thor’s Helmet Nebula, an object that was imaged using ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) on ESO’s 50th Anniversary, 5 October 2012, with the help of Brigitte Bailleul — winner of the Tweet Your Way to the VLT! competition (eso1238a).(Richard Hook/European Southern Observatory)


[1] Astronomers use the term HII to mean ionised hydrogen and HI for atomic hydrogen. A hydrogen atom consists of an electron bound to a proton but in an ionised gas atoms are split into freely moving electrons and positive ions, in this case just single protons.

[2] These objects are officially designated Sh 2-292, Sh 2-296, and Sh 2-297 respectively in the SIMBAD astronomical database.

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ESO is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world’s most productive ground-based astronomical observatory by far. It is supported by 15 countries: Austria, Belgium, Brazil, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and two survey telescopes. VISTA works in the infrared and is the world’s largest survey telescope and the VLT Survey Telescope is the largest telescope designed to exclusively survey the skies in visible light. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning the 39-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.