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In this image of nebulae in the Orion Molecular Complex, the submillimetre-wavelength glow of dust clouds is overlaid on a view of the region in the more familiar visible light, from the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The large orange bar extended down to the lower left is the Orion A portion of the Complex. The large bright cloud in the upper right of the image is the well-known Orion Nebula, also called Messier 42.  (Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2.) Now astronomers have a new tool to understand nebulae like this one: 3D mapping using Gaia data.
In this 2D image of nebulae in the Orion Molecular Complex, the submillimetre-wavelength glow of dust clouds is overlaid on a visible-light view of the region. The large orange bar extended down to the lower left is the Orion A portion of the Complex. The large bright cloud in the upper right is the well-known Orion Nebula, also called Messier 42. (Credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2.) Now astronomers have a new tool to understand nebulae like this one: 3D mapping using Gaia data.

Ever wonder what it would be like to fly through the Orion Nebula with all its newborn stars? Or buzz through the California Nebula? Of course, we’ve seen simulated “fly-throughs” of nebulae in sci-fi TV and movies and on planetarium domes. But, what if we had a warp-speed spaceship and could chart a path through the real thing? The first thing we’d need is accurate data about that region of space. That’s where a 3D model with precise distance measurements to stars and other objects would come in really handy.

Today, we’re not traveling on spaceships to the stars, but we do have a navigator showing us the way. It’s called the Gaia spacecraft, and it uses a pair of telescopes to do space-based astrometry. The goal is to measure distances to over a billion stars in our galaxy from Earth’s LaGrange 2 point. Having accurate distances to objects throughout the galaxy gives a complete 3D view of the Milky Way.

Gaia Helps Measure Nebulae

However, Gaia’s work is helpful in more than astrometry. Its data enabled a team of scientists to create realistic 3D views of the Orion A and California nebulae. Those models will help them understand why one is a starforming behemoth and the other is quiet.


2D images showing dust distribution inside the California (top) and Orion A Clouds (bottom) in false colors. The data have been obtained with the Herschel Space Telescope. Based on work by Lombardi et al. (2014), doi: 10.1051/0004-6361/201323293 (bottom); Lada et al (2017), doi: 10.1051/0004-6361/201731221 (top). The two nebulae show a marked difference in their structures, which may explain their differences in star formation.

Revealing 3D Nebulae

The new 3D reconstructions shown in the video below are by Sara Rezaei Khoshbakht (Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg) and Jouni Kainulainen (Chalmers University, Gothenberg). Their work shows the Orion A (in the Orion Molecular Cloud complex) and California nebulae in a new way. From Earth, these clouds appear somewhat similar, with a few differences in their structures. However, astronomers didn’t have a good feel for their three-dimensional sizes and shapes.

This animation shows the Orion A Molecular Cloud in a 3D reconstruction using 60,000 stars as extinction probes with precise distance estimates. The measurements are based on the Gaia EDR3 catalog of stars. The x, y, z axes are given in parsecs with the earth being the zero point. The spatial resolution
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