Space photo of the week: Shimmering ‘Christmas Tree Cluster’ wishes happy holidays to the universe

Overview: NGC 2264, also known as the “Christmas Tree Cluster,” is a captivating young star cluster located within the Milky Way, approximately 2,500 light-years away.

Discovery and Observation: This mesmerizing cluster was observed between February 2002 and December 2011 through eight separate observations spanning a total of 137 hours. These observations were made possible by various telescopes, each sensitive to different wavelengths of light.

Ages and Comparisons: NGC 2264 is home to a collection of stars ranging in age from 1 million to 5 million years. These stars are considerably young when compared to our middle-aged sun, which is approximately 4.6 billion years old. The cluster’s striking resemblance to a Christmas tree is attributed to its shape, resembling an evergreen conifer.

Diverse Stellar Population: Within NGC 2264, stars of varying sizes exist, with some surpassing the sun’s size by sevenfold, while others are merely a fraction, measuring only 10% of the sun’s mass. The youthful blue stars, visible as sparkling blue lights, shine through the cluster’s green gas clouds, creating a captivating visual spectacle.

Composite Image: The image of the Christmas Tree Nebula is a result of combining data from different telescopes, each capturing light at specific wavelengths across the electromagnetic spectrum. The high-energy X-ray radiation emitted by the blue stars was captured by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. The glowing green gas forming the pine tree-like shape was observed in optical light by the Wisconsin-Indiana-Yale-NOIRLab (WIYN) 0.9-meter telescope. The blanket of white stars, both in front of and behind the Christmas Tree Nebula, was captured in infrared data by the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS).

Enhancing the Image: To align the Christmas Tree Cluster’s peak at the top of the image, the composite was rotated approximately 150 degrees. This adjustment offers a more aesthetically pleasing visualization.

Unveiling the Cosmic Yule Tree: An intriguing aspect of NGC 2264 is a dark void situated at the bottom right of its Christmas tree-like shape. This void, reminiscent of an undecorated spot on a traditional Christmas tree, adds a unique element to the cluster’s appearance.

Conclusion: NGC 2264, the Christmas Tree Cluster, presents a captivating display of youthful stars within the Milky Way. This remarkable composite image showcases the diversity and beauty of the cosmos, inviting us to marvel at the wonders of our universe.

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