Orion Nebula 3d visualization

The Orion Nebula is one of the most incredible sights in the night’s sky. Even the smallest telescopes reveal swirls of gas and dust shrouding the stellar nursery.

This week, NASA released a stunning 3-D visualization that takes you for a ride through the star churning factory. Imagery from the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes comes together to create a fascinating topographic view of the Orion Nebula.

“Looking at the universe in infrared light gives striking context for the more familiar visible-light views. This movie provides a uniquely immersive chance to see how new features appear as we shift to wavelengths of light normally invisible to our eyes,” said Robert Hurt, lead visualization scientist at IPAC.

What’s the difference between how Spitzer (infrared telescope) sees the Orion Nebula compared to Hubble (visible light telescope)?

When the Hubble looks at an object like the Orion Nebula, it sees the glow in visible light. This glow represents features that reach thousands of degrees. Spitzer sees features that are much cooler, only a few hundred degrees. Hubble shows us the hot gas and brightest stars shining through it. Spitzer pierces this interstellar fog to show us what lies behind it.

Combine the two with some fancy visualization, and we get the incredible flythrough we see above.

Space Telescope Science Institute visualization scientist Frank Summers talks about why they created this. “The main thing is to give the viewer an experiential understanding, so that they have a way to interpret the images from telescopes,” explained Summers. “It’s a really wonderful thing when they can build a mental model in their head to transform the two-dimensional image into a three-dimensional scene.”

27+ years into its mission and the Hubble is still going strong. There were some bumps along the way, but the iconic images it captured of the Universe will stay with us forever. Next year, Hubble passes the torch to its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. But Hubble’s camera will keep snapping images for as long as NASA keeps funding it. That should last into the 2020s.

But Hubble will come home one day. Sometime in the 2030s, the telescope will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and burn up, ending a spectacular mission that began in 1990.