The Future of Nebula Research

Scientists continue to expand their understanding of even long-studied nebulae. Most of these advances are due to improvements in telescopes and other observational technology. The Hubble Telescope has revealed a great detail about nebulae. In 2005, the space telescope captured the most detailed view of the Crab Nebula in one of the largest images ever assembled by the observatory. And in 2006, the Spitzer Telescope (launched in 2003 as the Space Infrared Telescope) collected never-before-seen data about the Orion Nebula.

Spitzer's infrared eye found some 2,300 disks of planet-forming material that were either too small or distant to be seen by most traditional telescopes scanning Orion in the visible range of the electromagnetic spectrum. Spitzer also revealed about 200 "baby" stars that had yet to develop any planetary disks [source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory].

These are the wonders that space probes such as Pioneer 10 may encounter as they journey across the galaxy. Space explorers, however, may never enjoy a firsthand glimpse of nebulae. Orion, the nearest stellar factory to our home planet, sits about 1,450 light-years from Earth.

For more about nebulae, astronomy and related topics, take a look at the links on the next page.

An Earth-like Twin? It's Not a Nebulous Idea
The discovery of planet-forming disks in the Orion Nebula has enormous implications. More than ever, astronomers believe that another star system like our solar system may hold a planet analogous to Earth -- one that has just the right conditions to support life as we know it. In February 2008, astronomers may have even found a system, located 5,000 light-years across the galaxy, that could be a candidate. The system contains a reddish star about half the mass of our sun, as well as two gas giant planets that resemble Jupiter and Saturn. Although astronomers couldn't observe an Earth analogue, they believe it could exist in an inner orbit much closer to the star. And such star systems are not rare. There may be hundreds, thousands or millions of such systems spread across the far reaches of the cosmos. [source: The New York Times]