The Orion Nebula is one of the most recognizable objects in the night sky, as well as a favorite target for amateur astronomers. Now, this nebula has been imaged like never before in the deepest-image photograph yet taken of the stellar nursery.

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) was utilized to capture the spectacular new image. The Hawk-1 infrared camera was used to record the new photograph.

This new deep-field image records the presence of large populations of brown dwarfs — cool stellar bodies that radiate little radiation, except in infrared wavelengths. Analysis of the data also shows evidence of significant numbers of lone objects, each of which possess the mass of a planet. This finding could help astronomers better understand the development of stellar nurseries such as the Orion Nebula.

"Understanding how many low-mass objects are found in the Orion Nebula is very important to constrain current theories of star formation. We now realize that the way these very low-mass objects form depends on their environment," said Amelia Bayo of the Universidad de Valparaíso in Chile, as well as the Max-Planck Institut für Astronomie in Germany.

This new discovery suggests low-mass objects may have been created in large numbers within the Orion Nebula. This finding comes as a pleasant surprise to large numbers of astronomers. Analysis of the masses of small bodies in nebulae assists them in learning more about the processes by which stars form.

Before this new deep-field image, astronomers had discovered large numbers of bodies possessing roughly 25 percent the mass of the sun. This new finding denotes a significantly lower mass to stars than previously measured.

Although evidence of planet-sized objects was found in this new image from ESO, the telescope is not powerful enough to directly image any planets within the nebula. The European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), due to see first light in 2024, may be able to resolve these distant alien worlds.

"Our result feels to me like a glimpse into a new era of planet and star formation science. The huge number of free-floating planets at our current observational limit is giving me hope that we will discover a wealth of smaller Earth-sized planets with the E-ELT," Holger Drass from the Astronomisches Institut at Ruhr-Universität in Germany and the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, said.

Stretching 24 light years from one side to another, the Orion Nebula is easily viewed in the night sky as the middle "star" in the sword of Orion. This object is one of the easiest nebulae to find and explore using a small backyard telescope or binoculars.

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