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Unlike other celestial objects there is no question how the Horsehead Nebula got its name. The well-known silhouette of a horse's head and neck pokes up mysteriously from what look like whitecaps of interstellar foam. The nebula has graced astronomy books ever since its discovery over a century ago. But the Hubble Space Telescope’s infrared vision shows the horse in a new light.
The nebula, shadowy in optical light, appears transparent and ethereal when seen at infrared wavelengths. The rich tapestry of the Horsehead Nebula pops out against the backdrop of Milky Way stars and distant galaxies that are easily seen in infrared light.
The backlit wisps along the Horsehead's upper ridge are being illuminated by Sigma Orionis, a young five-star system just off the top of the Hubble image. A harsh ultraviolet glare from one of these bright stars is slowly evaporating the nebula. The Horsehead will disintegrate in about 5 million years.
The Horsehead Nebula is part of a much larger complex in the constellation Orion. Known collectively as the Orion Molecular Cloud, the complex also houses other famous objects such as the Great Orion Nebula (M42), the Flame Nebula, and Barnard's Loop. At about 1,500 light-years away, this complex is one of the nearest and most easily photographed regions in which massive stars are being formed.
This image was released in celebration of the 23rd anniversary of the launch of Hubble aboard the space shuttle Discovery.