‘Fog curling around a street lamp’: Hubble’s mesmerizing image of a cosmic keyhole

Reflection nebulae like NGC 1999 only shine because of the light from an embedded source.
Loukia Papadopoulos
ESA cosmic key hole.jpg
ESA cosmic key hole


The Hubble Space Telescope has brought us many images of space, each more mesmerizing than the other. Its latest find is no different: it features a black keyhole in the middle of some pretty intense celestial activity.

A peculiar portrait

"This peculiar portrait from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope showcases NGC 1999, a reflection nebula in the constellation Orion," stated an ESA press release published last Monday.

"NGC 1999 is around 1350 light-years from Earth and lies near to the Orion Nebula, the closest region of massive star formation to Earth. NGC 1999 itself is a relic of recent star formation — it is composed of detritus left over from the formation of a newborn star."

ESA compares the image to "fog curling around a street lamp" and states that reflection nebulae like NGC 1999 only shine because of the light from an embedded source.

"In the case of NGC 1999, this source is the aforementioned newborn star V380 Orionis which is visible at the center of this image. The most notable aspect of NGC 1999's appearance, however, is the conspicuous hole in its center, which resembles an inky-black keyhole of cosmic proportions," the agency explains.

The image is not entirely new. It has been created from archival Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 observations that were collected shortly after Servicing Mission 3A in 1999.

A Bok globule

At first, astronomers speculated that the dark keyhole in NGC 1999 was something called a Bok globule — a dense, cold cloud of gas, molecules, and cosmic dust that blots out background light. Further studies using a collection of telescopes, including ESA's Herschel Space Observatory, revealed that the dark patch is actually an empty region of space whose origins remain unknown.

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In April of 2022, Hubble captured a fascinating new image of a galaxy with an active black hole and massive dark dust tendrils.

The spiral galaxy, called NGC 7172, was located roughly 110 million light-years away from Earth in the Piscis Austrinus constellation. The image was a combination of two different captures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys and Wide Field Camera 3.

In August of 2022, Hubble produced an image of the Orion Nebula, one of the Milky Way's most studied and photographed objects and a nest of material where young stars are being formed. Alnitak, Saif, and Rigel could be seen floating in a large, dense cloud of interstellar dust and gas between the stars.

In September of 2022, the cosmic tool captured two distant spiral galaxies overlapping.

The galaxies named SDSS J115331 and LEDA 2073461 were actually over a billion light-years from Earth. The Hubble Space Telescope view suggested that these two celestial bodies were dipping into each other, perhaps merging, but they were not. The view was an optical illusion, and the galaxies were not interacting with each other at all.

What will Hubble capture next? Only time will tell.

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