The splendor of the Milky Way's Swan Nebula

The Swan Nebula is filled with gas and dust -- the building blocks for news stars. As the massive stars form and begin to shine, their solar winds and strong light etch random patterns in the interstellar medium.

Welcome to the Swan Nebula, or, as a madrigal singer might think of it: Il Bianco e Dolce Cigno -- the gentle white swan.

This bird, however, is anything but gentle. The nebula, more widely known as the Omega nebula (yep, these are like Rorschach blot tests; other names include the Lobster Nebula and the Horseshoe Nebula), lies some 5,500 light-years away in the constellation Sagittarius, and stretches 15 light-years across.

Astronomers calculate that it's one of the youngest and most massive stellar nurseries in the galaxy. The nursery began forming new stars only a few million years ago.  In May, a team of astronomers analyzing the nebula as seen via NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope estimated that more than 1,000 stars are forming in and around the nebula.

The image at the top of the page, released today, comes courtesy of the European Southern Observatory's New Technology Telescope at the observatory's facility at La Silla, Chile. Two more-detailed images from the Hubble space Telescope are included in the mini slide show at the top of the page.

As you peruse the images,  feel free to trigger the King Singers in the video clip below. They are giving their rendition of Jacques Arcadelt's "Il Bianco e Dolce Cigno." It's a soothing listen; and for those of a choir-like bent, it's fun to sing.

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