Saturday, June 23 , 2018, 11:42 am | Fog/Mist 67º


Dennis Mammana: Orion Proudly Shines Atop a Stellar Nursery

See a stellar nursery after dark this week. Click to view larger
See a stellar nursery after dark this week. ( illustration)

We are made of star stuff.

How many times over the years have we read or heard this phrase but never stopped long enough to consider its true significance?

Well, let’s do so now.

When the universe we know came into being some 14 billion years ago, there existed little more than hydrogen. But look around you. Today we see everything from silicon in our computer chips, to aluminum in our baking pans, to chlorine in our swimming pools.

So where did it all come from?

Amazingly, it came from the stars. These are the chemical furnaces in which everything we know was created eons ago, not only the external world but also our internal selves. The oxygen we breathe, the calcium in our bones, the carbon in our DNA all were forged deep within distant and ancient stars, and blasted into space during a final act of stellar death.

In fact, the very iron in our blood was the trigger for at least one supermassive star’s explosion somewhere and sometime in the distant past.

After wafting through the cosmos for who knows how long, this stellar ash loaded with heavy elements merged with and enriched the already existing hydrogen clouds. This spurred the birth of new stars and planetary systems, and, in at least one place — right here on Earth — life itself.

Are there other similar places throughout this vast universe where such life arose from the ashes of dying stars? As we learn more about the stars and planets that exist out there, the answer is: quite possibly!

Yes, we — and, possibly, many others — are made of star stuff ... a truly remarkable concept to ponder while standing under a starry night.

In our case, it all came together billions of years ago, but it’s not difficult to find places where similar activity is occurring today. One of the most prolific such stellar nurseries lies among the brilliant stars of the constellation Orion, the hunter.

We can now see Orion proudly standing high in the southern sky after dark. Two stars — Betelgeuse and Bellatrix — mark the shoulders of the celestial hunter. Saiph and Rigel form his knees. In his midsection appear three stars in a nearly straight line — Alnitak, Alnilam and Mintaka — that trace his belt. And below hangs a sword that appears as a smudge of light known to astronomers as M42: the Great Orion Nebula.

Even a small backyard telescope under a dark night sky can show us the delicate structure of this stellar nursery, and the four tightly packed young stars near its center that illuminate it from within.

It is from a similar place that we can trace our own origins. Exactly where that was, of course, we cannot say, but we know that the materials out of which we are made came from somewhere “out there.” Perhaps even more profound is that our species has evolved the intelligence and technology to ponder this remarkable fact.

When we gaze upon the stars at night, we are viewing our ancient ancestors. And to me, this makes the starry heavens — and the phenomenon we call — even more remarkable and precious.

Dennis Mammana is an astronomy writer, author, lecturer and photographer working from under the clear dark skies of the Anza-Borrego Desert in the San Diego County backcountry. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter: @dennismammana. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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