Today's Image

The Christmas Tree Cluster, a December delight

Christmas Tree Cluster: Cone of dark cloudiness at bottom, vast clouds of red gas with bluish white dots of stars above.
The Christmas Tree Cluster. Image via ESO.

We’d be remiss to have the holiday season pass by without showcasing the lovely Christmas Tree Cluster. The area of sky in this photo goes by a number of names, including the Christmas Tree Cluster, the Cone Nebula and NGC 2264. The image above shows a region of space about 30 light-years across. Astronomers at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, in the Atacama Desert of Chile, captured this image. It includes the cone-shaped gas cloud at bottom, a profusion of red gas, plus bright, sparkling, bluish-white baubles … that is, stars.

The Christmas Tree Cluster lies in the direction of the constellation Monoceros the Unicorn. Monoceros rises in December not long after Orion the Hunter. The Christmas Tree Cluster is about halfway between two bright stars you might know: reddish Betelgeuse in the shoulder of Orion and Procyon in Canis Minor.

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You can view the Christmas Tree Cluster tonight! At magnitude 3.9, it’s visible without optical aid, but binoculars will give you a better look. Can you make out the Christmas tree shape with binoculars? Let us know in the comments below.

Star chart of Monoceros, with many black dots and text annotations.
In this star chart of Monoceros, the star that the Christmas Tree Cluster surrounds is the highest in the constellation connected by the lines. As a bonus, you can look for the Rosette Nebula, just below. Image via IAU/ Wikimedia Commons.

Bottom line: The Christmas Tree Cluster is a collection of sparking bluish-white stars. It is above a cone-shaped cloud of gas in the direction of the constellation Monoceros the Unicorn.

December 23, 2021
Today's Image

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Kelly Kizer Whitt

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