Merry Christmas from the cosmos

A young star cluster in our Milky Way declares, “It’s the season for 2023!”

Have you ever come across comparison photos that show striking similarities between objects on Earth and those in space? The latest image of an open star cluster, known as NGC 2264 and affectionately called the Christmas Tree Cluster, perfectly embodies the holiday spirit this December!

Thanks to the collaborative efforts of multiple observatories and the wonders of the cosmos, we have been gifted a vibrant image of NGC 2264 that bears a remarkable resemblance to a lit-up Christmas tree.

Glimmering lights

This young star cluster resides in our Milky Way galaxy, specifically in the constellation Monoceros, and is located 2,500 light-years away. It spans an impressive 2¼ light-years across and boasts stars that range in age from 1 to 5 million years old. For comparison, our own Sun is approximately 4.6 billion years old, making this cluster relatively young. The masses of the stars within NGC 2264 vary greatly, with some weighing less than a tenth of the Sun’s mass and others surpassing the Sun’s mass by a factor of seven.

NASA recently shared a captivating animation and image on their website, showcasing a new and colorful composite of the Christmas Tree Cluster. The optical data captured by the 0.9m WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak reveals the cluster’s associated emission nebula as pine-green needles, resembling the branches of a Christmas tree. In contrast, the Chandra X-ray Observatory’s data contributes dazzling blue and white lights, primarily concentrated at the top and middle sections of the “tree.” All the other stars in the foreground and background are depicted using infrared data from the Two Micron All Sky Survey.

A video created using Chandra data displays the flickering of some of the blue and white stars, which occurs due to various processes. Similar to how our Sun generates solar flares and sunspots through its magnetic field, these young stars exhibit similar but more energetic phenomena. Variations in the Christmas Tree Cluster can also be attributed to fluctuations in nebulous density. Additionally, the twinkling lights can result from material falling onto stars from surrounding circumstellar disks. NGC 2264 is also associated with two well-known nebulae, namely the Cone Nebula (a dark nebula located at the bottom center) and the Fox Fur Nebula (situated at the lower right).

A Closer Look

To create this vibrant image, shorter wavelengths are represented as blue, intermediate wavelengths as green, and longer wavelengths as red. The bluer an object appears, the closer it is to us and indicates a high rate of star formation. Conversely, objects that appear very red are located further away and often contain abundant dust. For a more detailed explanation of wavelength measurements, visit JWST’s website. Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: T.A. Rector (NRAO/AUI/NSF and NOIRLab/NSF/AURA) and B.A. Wolpa (NOIRLab/NSF/AURA); Infrared: NASA/NSF/IPAC/CalTech/Univ. of Massachusetts; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/L. Frattare & J.Major.

The Christmas Tree Cluster is not the only celestial wonder to captivate us during this time of year. Through the magnificent combination of infrared data from the James Webb Space Telescope and optical imagery from the Hubble Space Telescope, the universe has bestowed upon us a second festive image: a colossal galaxy cluster. Known as MACS 0416, or the Christmas Tree Galaxy Cluster, this cluster is situated 4.3 billion light-years away and consists of two massive colliding galaxy clusters. The photons reaching us tonight from this cluster began their journey around the same time our solar system was forming.

The Christmas Tree Galaxy Cluster earned its moniker due to its vibrant colors and flickering lights. These lights are a result of the cluster’s galaxies temporarily amplifying background objects through gravitational lensing, as revealed by a recent study led by Haojing Yan from the University of Missouri. Gravitational lensing occurs when the gravity of a massive object bends light from objects situated beyond it.

In their study, the researchers utilized the new Webb data and compared four different epochs to identify 14 transient objects, 12 of which were previously unknown. These objects exhibited “lights” that appeared and disappeared over a span of 126 days. The study, published in The Astrophysical Journal this year, sheds light on the fascinating phenomena within the Christmas Tree Galaxy Cluster. “We’re calling MACS0416 the Christmas Tree Galaxy Cluster, both because it’s so colorful and because of these flickering lights we find within it,” says Yan.

Do the cosmos imitate Earth, or does Earth imitate the cosmos? Perhaps it’s simply a delightful coincidence. Feel free to explore other instances of these cosmic resemblances and see what else you can discover. For now, Astronomy magazine and the universe wish you a joyous holiday season!

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