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The Omega Nebula
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Name: M17, NGC 6618, Omega Nebula, Swan Nebula,
     Sharpless 45, RCW 160, Gum 81
Description: Emission Nebula
Position (J2000): RA 18h 20m 47s Dec -16° 10.3'
Constellation: Sagittarius
Visual magnitude: +6.0
Angular dimensions: 11 arcmins
Distance: 5500 light years
Image Credit: ESO
Release date: July 7, 2009

More Images:  N1119  N1044  N0030  N0211g  N0925  N0313  N1201  N0211c
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The Omega Nebula, sometimes called the Swan Nebula, is a dazzling stellar nursery located about 5500 light-years away towards the constellation of Sagittarius (the Archer). An active star-forming region of gas and dust about 15 light-years across, the nebula has recently spawned a cluster of massive, hot stars. The intense light and strong winds from these hulking infants have carved remarkable filigree structures in the gas and dust.

When seen through a small telescope the nebula has a shape that reminds some observers of the final letter of the Greek alphabet, omega, while others see a swan with its distinctive long, curved neck. Yet other nicknames for this evocative cosmic landmark include the Checkmark, Horseshoe and the Lobster Nebula.

Swiss astronomer Jean-Philippe Loys de Chéseaux discovered the nebula around 1745. The French comet hunter Charles Messier independently rediscovered it about twenty years later and included it as number 17 in his famous catalogue. In a small telescope, the Omega Nebula appears as an enigmatic ghostly bar of light set against the star fields of the Milky Way. Early observers were unsure whether this curiosity was really a cloud of gas or a remote cluster of stars too faint to be resolved. In 1866, William Huggins settled the debate when he confirmed the Omega Nebula to be a cloud of glowing gas, through the use of a new instrument, the astronomical spectrograph.

In recent years, astronomers have discovered that the Omega Nebula is one of the youngest and most massive star-forming regions in the Milky Way. Active star-birth started a few million years ago and continues through today. The brightly shining gas shown in this picture is just a blister erupting from the side of a much larger dark cloud of molecular gas. The dust that is so prominent in this picture comes from the remains of massive hot stars that have ended their brief lives and ejected material back into space, as well as the cosmic detritus from which future suns form.

The newly released image, obtained with the EMMI instrument attached to the ESO 3.58-meter New Technology Telescope (NTT) at La Silla, Chile, shows the central region of the Omega Nebula in exquisite detail. In 2000, another instrument on the NTT, called SOFI, captured another striking image of the nebula in the near-infrared, giving astronomers a penetrating view through the obscuring dust, and clearly showing many previously hidden stars. The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has also imaged small parts of this nebula (n0313 and n0211g) in fine detail.

At the left of the image a huge and strangely box-shaped cloud of dust covers the glowing gas. The fascinating palette of subtle color shades across the image comes from the presence of different gases (mostly hydrogen, but also oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur) that are glowing under the fierce ultraviolet light radiated by the hot young stars.

From Wikipedia:

The Omega Nebula, also known as the Swan Nebula, Checkmark Nebula, Lobster Nebula, and the Horseshoe Nebula (catalogued as Messier 17 or M17 and as NGC 6618) is an H II region in the constellation Sagittarius. It was discovered by Philippe Loys de Chéseaux in 1745. Charles Messier catalogued it in 1764. It is located in the rich starfields of the Sagittarius area of the Milky Way.

The Omega Nebula is between 5,000 and 6,000 light-years from Earth and it spans some 15 light-years in diameter. The cloud of interstellar matter of which this nebula is a part is roughly 40 light-years in diameter and has a mass of 30,000 solar masses. The total mass of the Omega Nebula is an estimated 800 solar masses.

It is considered one of the brightest and most massive star-forming regions of our galaxy. Its local geometry is similar to the Orion Nebula except that it is viewed edge-on rather than face-on.

An open cluster of 35 stars lies embedded in the nebulosity and causes the gases of the nebula to shine due to radiation from these hot, young stars; however the actual number of stars in the nebula is much higher - up to 800, 100 of spectral type earlier than B9, and 9 of spectral type O, plus >1000 stars in formation on its outer regions. It's also one of the youngest clusters known, with an age of just 1 million years.

The luminous blue variable HD 168607, located in the south-east part of the Omega nebula, is generally assumed to be associated with it; its close neighbor, the blue hypergiant HD 168625, may be too.

The Swan portion of M17, the Omega Nebula in the Sagittarius nebulosity is said to resemble a barber's pole.