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

 
 
 
 
Astronomy

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. (Creators.com 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.

Support Noozhawk Today

You are an important ally in our mission to deliver clear, objective, high-quality professional news reporting for Santa Barbara, Goleta and the rest of Santa Barbara County. Join the Hawks Club today to help keep Noozhawk soaring.

We offer four membership levels: $5 a month, $10 a month, $25 a month or $1 a week. Payments can be made through PayPal below, or click here for information on recurring credit-card payments.

Thank you for your vital support.

Become a Noozhawk Supporter

First name
Last name
Enter your email
Select your membership level
×

Payment Information

You are purchasing:

Payment Method

Pay by Credit Card:

Mastercard, Visa, American Express, Discover

Pay with Apple Pay or Google Pay:

Noozhawk partners with Stripe to provide secure invoicing and payments processing.

  • Ask
  • Vote
  • Investigate
  • Answer

Noozhawk Asks: What’s Your Question?

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a new feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Here’s how it works: You share your questions with us in the nearby box. In some cases, we may work with you to find the answers. In others, we may ask you to vote on your top choices to help us narrow the scope. And we’ll be regularly asking you for your feedback on a specific issue or topic.

We also expect to work together with the reader who asked the winning questions to find the answer together. Noozhawk’s objective is to come at questions from a place of curiosity and openness, and we believe a transparent collaboration is the key to achieve it.

The results of our investigation will be published here in this Noozhawk Asks section. Once or twice a month, we plan to do a review of what was asked and answered.

Thanks for asking!

Click Here to Get Started >

Reader Comments

Noozhawk is no longer accepting reader comments on our articles. Click here for the announcement. Readers are instead invited to submit letters to the editor by emailing them to [email protected]. Please provide your full name and community, as well as contact information for verification purposes only.

Daily Noozhawk

Subscribe to Noozhawk's A.M. Report, our free e-Bulletin sent out every day at 4:15 a.m. with Noozhawk's top stories, hand-picked by the editors.

Sign Up Now >