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Orion's Dragon
A color-coded image that’s based on SOFIA infrared data shows “Orion’s Dragon” in the Orion Nebula, more than 1,300 light-years from Earth. (NASA / USRA / DLR Image)

Spectral readings from the Orion Nebula have charted the cosmic weather patterns for powerful stellar winds that have created a bubble of material that’s 12 light-years wide, as well as a structure that’s been nicknamed “Orion’s Dragon.”

The dragon shape stands out in a 3-D video produced using data from NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA, a Boeing 747 jet that’s been converted to carry a 106-inch telescope and other scientific instruments.

“When we first saw it, we were standing around my computer screen looking at it and say, ‘Hey, doesn’t that look like a dragon?’ And everybody said, ‘Yeah, that looks like a dragon,’ ” Joan Schmelz, the SOFIA project’s associate director for science and public outreach at the Universities Space Research Association, said today at the American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting in Seattle.

There’s even a stereoscopic video clip that pops out when seen with red-blue 3-D glasses. (You can download the MPG file via the SOFIA website.)

The dragon, complete with a head, tail and a bluish ribcage, is embedded in a “data cube” that was compiled from more than 2 million readings taken on the SOFIA airplane over the course of 40 hours. A spectrometer known as the German Receiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies, or GREAT, recorded the spectral fingerprints of carbon inside the Orion Nebula over time.

SOFIA’s data cube documents the velocity of the winds of material thrown off by a massive star known as Theta 1 Orionis C, and graphically shows how the winds interact with the molecular clouds surrounding the star.

Such interactions have a big effect on star formation: The SOFIA findings reveal that the winds are blowing out a huge bubble of gas and disrupting the birth sites of new stars.

“My daughter gave birth about a year and a half ago, and so my granddaughter is now approaching her ‘terrible twos’ and she’s practicing her tantrums,” said Alexander Tielens, an astronomer at Leiden Observatory in the Netherlands who is the senior author of a paper about the Orion observations, published today in Nature Astronomy.

“Basically, what you can say is that this star is showing a tantrum,” Tielens said, “and throwing everything out of the birth sites in which it was formed and moving it around.”

That’s just what dragons do, as any fan of “Game of Thrones” would know.

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