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Hot, young stars heat up their gaseous surroundings in the Orion Nebula. Image credit: NASA


[The Orion Nebula can be seen with the naked eye. It is the middle of three stars in the “sword” of Orion, located just below the belt. Image credit: Mouser - Own work] 

Have you ever wondered how fireworks get their many beautiful colors? Fireworks are packed with a very specific set of chemicals, which, when heated, release energy in the form of light. Different chemicals release light at different wavelengths (i.e. different colors). As it turns out, stars do the same thing!

Stars are born in giant clouds of gas and dust. Typically, they are not born alone. A single cloud of gas and dust can collapse to form hundreds of stars in a sort of stellar nursery. When the stars first start undergoing nuclear fusion in their cores - that is, when they first start to burn - they heat up the remaining gas around them. That gas (mostly made of hydrogen) will release energy in the form of light. The Orion Nebula (pictured above) is just one of many stellar nurseries in our Solar neighborhood. It is shaped like a bowl, with the opening of the bowl pointed at the Earth. This gives us a unique opportunity to peer into the center of this swirling cloud of baby stars and glimpse the physics at work. Hydrogen happens to glow red when heated, which is why the Orion Nebula appears red. Although the image above uses false colors, astronomers try to match those colors to what you might actually see as well as they can. In fact, you can see the Orion Nebula with your naked eye almost any night in the Northern Hemisphere winter. It resides just below the belt of Orion, and actually appears to be fuzzy and pink.