A Day for a Daydream

It’s fun, isn’t it, to gaze up at a cloudy sky on a windy day and watch the clouds change shape, cirrus to cumulus, nimbus to nebula. From time to time we think we see recognizable shapes . . . then, just as they appear, they’re gone, and new shapes appear. A dog’s body can change into a cow’s face, or a child with pigtails into, perhaps, the Liberty Bell, complete with crack!

Imagine the wonder, thousands of years ago when the world’s first astronomers peered into the clear night sky and picked out arrangements of stars that formed a picture in their imagination, or told a story: a lion; bears, both large and small; a woman holding a mirror – all these star-pictures helped create the foundation of today’s science of astronomy.

The Planisphaeri Coeleste is a celestial map from the 17th century, by the Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit. (Credit: Wikipedia, Public Domain.)

Tools for viewing the sky have improved dramatically to help scientists see the sky since the invention of the telescope in the 17th century. And when they started viewing with these vision-enhancing tools, they started naming them for their appearance as well.

Looking at Clouds from Both Sides

Among the sights astronomers encountered as they scanned the sky were smudgy-looking, blurry blobs of light. And because these space structures appeared cloud-like in formation, they were named nebulae, the Latin word for clouds.

As technology advanced, scientists could observe more clearly the structure of these nebulae and indeed, as the images came into clearer focus, there were certain similarities with clouds. Many nebulae serve as incubators for star formation. And some contain evidence of being graveyards for dead and near-dead stars. But all have shapes now visible to us in great detail thanks to the power of massive terrestrial observatories, as well as space telescopes such as the Hubble.

Nebulae are collections of gases and dust collected over billions of years into unique structures illuminated by the lights of the stars contained within each nebula.

The Name Game

Today’s astronomers, some with possibly an impish sense of humor, are still calling them as they see ’em. While we are likely to be aware of the best known nebulae – the Horsehead Nebula, the Crab Nebula, and the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula – many distinctively shaped examples are perhaps less well-known.

One that has been newly identified is a structure in deep space that bears a remarkable resemblance to one of the best-known objects on Earth:  New York’s Statue of Liberty.

The Statue of Liberty Nebula as captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. (Image Credit & Copyright: S. Mazlin, J. Harvey, R. Gilbert, & D. Verschatse [SSRO/PROMPT/UNC])

The Statue of Liberty Nebula (NGC 3576) contains an especially bright region that outlines and in some ways highlights the crown of the statue. The region is particularly bright because it is a very active star-forming area.

Another nebula with a very distinctive shape is known to us as the Squid Nebula, officially titled the Ou4, captured by the Isaac Newton Telescope located in the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain.

The Squid Nebula is 2,300 light-years away in the constellation Cepheus. (Image Credit: R. Corradi (IAC), N. Grosso, A. Acker, R. Greimel, P. Guillout)

A relatively new discovery, much is still unknown about it. Some signs point to it being a planetary nebula, but the actual origin of Ou4 is currently unknown. Unusually, it is “bipolar,” meaning that it has a locus at each end.

Space . . . The Final Frontier

Finally, we have a pair of nebulae that are being celebrated for their remarkable resemblance to starships featured in Star Trek. One seems to match the Enterprise NCC-1701, commanded by the fictional Captain James T. Kirk in the original series, while the other one (to its left in the photo) seems to resemble Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s Enterprise NCC-1701-D from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

This new infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope may remind sci-fi fans of the ground-breaking television show "Star Trek."

The image, created by the Spitzer Space Telescope, displays two regions of star formation. It also pays tribute to the creativity of stargazers who – just like us on a windy day – see things in the sky and allow their imaginations to illuminate the sights that come into focus. By naming these spectacular structures, they enhance our appreciation for the vision they share.