I recently made a rather startling discovery that I thought I would share with everyone. It all started on January the 23rd of 2004, a typical deep winter night in western Kentucky. A cold front had just moved through, resulting in a very clear sky. The temperature was quickly dropping into the teens, however, and a brisk wind chilled to the bone. I had just purchased a used 3-inch Takahashi Flourite Apochromat a few weeks before, and this was only the third chance that I had to use the scope with my camera. I wanted to shoot something that would show off the instrument's wide-field capabilities with my CCD camera, so I chose the Messier 78 area in Orion. This is a beautiful nebula complex containing a wide variety of what the winter sky has to offer. There are beautiful blue reflection nebulae, large swaths of dusty dark nebulosity--not to mention that my whopping 2 degree field of view would also capture the ruddy glow of Barnard's Loop located just to the northeast! I took a series of exposures resulting in a total of 90 minutes of luminance data (B&W) along with 20 minutes each using red, green, and blue filters. Since I had to be at work early the next morning, my session was short and sweet.
Due to work commitments and so forth, several days passed. Finally, on the evening of January the 29th, I sat down and began the often grueling process of stacking and processing the many exposures that I had taken with my new scope. I almost immediately noticed a peculiar, tiny, elongated object on my master luminance frame. Having observed this area of Orion on many occasion, both visually and through imaging, I soon realized that I had never before noted such an object in this area of the sky. The curious looking object was rather small in appearance, however it was still quite conspicuous--a little too conspicuous to have gone unnoticed. I immediately began to download images matching the curious object's position from the Digital Sky Survey, which is based upon the National Geographic Palomar Optical Sky Survey. Since these images were taken at various wavelengths using sophisticated cameras with 48-inch apertures, I just knew that the 'fuzzy' object would show up there. To my great surprise, however, it did not! Holy Cow-could I have just made a new discovery?
I immediately did an area search using on-line professional databases, which resulted in one catalogued object in particular showing up in the area of my 'new' object. It was an extremely faint Herbig-Haro type object known as HH 22. Seeing that this object was all but invisible on the downloaded DSS images and quite obvious in my backyard 3-inch scope shots, I knew that something quite spectacular had to be occurring in this area of the sky. I then sent my image and the little bit of data that I had gathered during my on-line analysis to a good friend and professional astronomer, Brian Skiff at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Within minutes, he fired back a reply urging me to forward my findings to Bo Reipurth (Univ of Hawaii), author of the Catalogue of Herbig-Haro Objects. Being one of the world's leading researchers in the area of early stellar evolution, Bo reported back to me that he suspected a deeply embedded fetal star previously only noted in the infrared and radio part of the spectrum was responsible for this 'new' nebula! Essentially, the new born star has undergone some sort of outburst as it makes final adjustments with it's surroundings before settling into a sun-like state. Becoming more luminous in the process, this 'new' star's light is reflected by the surrounding dust particles--creating what is known as a cometary-type reflection nebula! Having himself discovered a very similar event within the constellation of Orion back in 1986, he further exclaimed that such occurrences are extremely rare (less than a dozen ever recorded) and insisted that I submit the discovery to the International Astronomical Union for inclusion in their daily published circular.
At this point, the chain of event's become almost surreal! Within 24 hrs of me actually noticing the object on my image taken with a 3-inch scope, Bo Reipurth and his colleagues were imaging it with an 87-inch telescope in Hawaii. Next thing ya' know, Reipurth is requesting that the massive 320-inch diameter optics of the Gemini Telescope be pointed towards "my" object! The idea of this thing evolving from my 3-inch scope, which one can easily hold using one hand, to an instrument with more than 342 tons of moving parts is absolutely staggering! The fact that it all happened in less than 48 hours is even more thought provoking?
In essence, it is truly great to know that the gap between backyard amateurs like myself and professionals like Brian and Bo can on occasion be bridged to allow such a potentially remarkable discovery to be realized essentially overnight! I personally believe that this makes a very good statement in the category of pro-am collaboration, and I am absolutely thrilled to be an integral part of such a great effort. I must admit that the nebula's discovery was quite serendipitous, however, as with most things there is a lesson involved.. It's sort of ironic--I've spent countless hours over the last 20 years of my life seeking out the darkest of skies and peering through the largest of telescopes at distant galaxies, all the time thinking in the back of my mind "wouldn't it be fascinating if the tiny speck near that galaxy core was a dying star (supernova) that had yet to be discovered?" Who would've known that on a freezing cold night with 20 mph wind gusts I would take an image of a famous Messier object with a 3-inch scope from my suburban backyard and capture a sun-like star in the process of 'being born' right here in our very own spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy!
The star responsible for McNeil's Nebula, officially known as V1647 Orionis, appears to be a young stellar object. In other words, it is a star not unlike our very own Sun that is in the process of being born out of a womb of interstellar gas and dust. It has been theorized that all stars begin their life cycles in this way. It is, however, a rare prize to capture one during the process. As the fetal star gathers material from the surrounding clouds, it will ocassionally acquire enough mass in order to produce a sudden "outburst" of light that is visible across much of the electromagnetic spectrum and illuminates the surrounding area of sky. I happened to be imaging this star's parental cloud of gas during one such outburst. V1647 Orionis has since been called a "missing link" in stellar evolutionary theory by astrophysicists. McNeil's Nebula has disappeared and reappeared, as the associated star goes in and out of outburst, every several years since it's discovery and continues to be studied by astronomers worldwide.