Nasa unveils Christmas tree twinkling in space

The cluster is a nursery of young stars, their ages ranging from one to five million years old, showcasing a variety of sizes from less than a tenth to a whopping seven times the mass of our Sun.

In a celestial celebration fitting for the holiday season, NASA has unveiled a stunning image of NGC 2264, affectionately known as the “Christmas Tree Cluster.”

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This vibrant star-forming region, located approximately 2,500 light-years away in the Milky Way Galaxy, resembles a festive tree adorned with twinkling lights.

The cluster is a nursery of young stars, their ages ranging from one to five million years old, showcasing a variety of sizes from less than a tenth to a whopping seven times the mass of our Sun.

The composite image released by NASA captures the imagination with its clever use of color and orientation. By rotating the view by about 160 degrees clockwise, astronomers have presented the cluster in a way that accentuates its Christmas tree shape, with the apex pointing upwards.

The blue and white hues represent the energetic young stars, whose X-ray emissions were detected by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. These stars appear to flicker in an animated version of the image, mimicking the sparkling lights of a decorated tree.

Christmas tree star cluster
NGC 2264 is, in fact, a cluster of young stars — with ages between about one and five million years old — in our Milky Way. (Photo: Nasa)

Complementing the cosmic display, green nebulously, akin to pine needles, is visible thanks to optical data from the National Science Foundation’s WIYN 0.9-meter telescope on Kitt Peak. Infrared data from the Two Micron All Sky Survey adds another layer to the image, revealing both foreground and background stars in a crisp white.

While the animation suggests a synchronized blinking of these stellar lights, this is an artistic touch added to emphasize the stars’ locations and enhance the resemblance to a holiday tree. In reality, the variations in brightness among the stars are not in sync, but are due to several astrophysical processes. These include magnetic field activities such as powerful flares, which are similar to those experienced by our own Sun but on a much grander scale.

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Additionally, the stars exhibit hot spots and dark regions that become visible or hidden as they rotate. Variations can also occur due to changes in the gas obscuring the stars and alterations in the material falling onto the stars from their surrounding gas disks.

This cosmic Christmas Tree Cluster is not only a feast for the eyes but also a rich field for scientific study. Its relative proximity to Earth and the diversity of its stellar inhabitants make NGC 2264 a valuable laboratory for understanding star formation and the early stages of stellar evolution.

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