Press Release

Orion’s fireplace: ESO releases new image of the Flame Nebula

4 January 2022

Orion offers you a spectacular firework display to celebrate the holiday season and the new year in this new image from the European Southern Observatory (ESO). But no need to worry, this iconic constellation is neither exploding nor burning. The “fire” you see in this holiday postcard is Orion’s Flame Nebula and its surroundings captured in radio waves — an image that undoubtedly does justice to the nebula’s name! It was taken with the ESO-operated Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX), located on the cold Chajnantor Plateau in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

The newly processed image of the Flame Nebula, in which smaller nebulae like the Horsehead Nebula also make an appearance, is based on observations conducted by former ESO astronomer Thomas Stanke and his team a few years ago. Excited to try out the then recently installed SuperCam instrument at APEX, they pointed it towards the constellation Orion. “As astronomers like to say, whenever there is a new telescope or instrument around, observe Orion: there will always be something new and interesting to discover!” says Stanke. A few years and many observations later, Stanke and his team have now had their results accepted for publication in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.

One of the most famous regions in the sky, Orion is home to the giant molecular clouds closest to the Sun — vast cosmic objects made up mainly of hydrogen, where new stars and planets form. These clouds are located between 1300 and 1600 light-years away and feature the most active stellar nursery in the Solar System’s neighbourhood, as well as the Flame Nebula depicted in this image. This “emission” nebula harbours a cluster of young stars at its centre that emit high-energy radiation, making the surrounding gases shine. 

With such an exciting target, the team were unlikely to be disappointed. In addition to the Flame Nebula and its surroundings, Stanke and his collaborators were able to admire a wide range of other spectacular objects. Some examples include the reflection nebulae Messier 78 and NGC 2071 — clouds of interstellar gas and dust believed to reflect the light of nearby stars. The team even discovered one new nebula, a small object, remarkable in its almost perfectly circular appearance, which they named the Cow Nebula.

The observations were conducted as part of the APEX Large CO Heterodyne Orion Legacy Survey (ALCOHOLS), which looked at the radio waves emitted by carbon monoxide (CO) in the Orion clouds. Using this molecule to probe wide areas of the sky is the primary goal of SuperCam, as it allows astronomers to map large gas clouds that give birth to new stars. Unlike what the “fire” of this image might suggest, these clouds are actually cold, with temperatures typically just a few tens of degrees above absolute zero.  

Given the many secrets it can tell, this region of the sky has been scanned many times in the past at different wavelengths, each wavelength range unveiling different, unique features of Orion’s molecular clouds. One example are the infrared observations performed with ESO’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile that make up the peaceful background of this image of the Flame Nebula and its surroundings. Unlike visible light, infrared waves pass through the thick clouds of interstellar dust, allowing astronomers to spot stars and other objects which would otherwise remain hidden. 

So, this holiday season, bring in the new year with this spectacular multiwavelength firework show put on by the Orion’s Flame Nebula, presented by ESO!

More information

The observations mentioned in this press release are presented in a paper accepted for publication in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

The team is composed of Th. Stanke (European Southern Observatory, Garching bei München, Germany [ESO]), H. G. Arce (Department of Astronomy, Yale University, New Haven, CT, USA), J. Bally (CASA, University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA), P. Bergman (Department of Space, Earth and Environment, Chalmers University of Technology, Onsala Space Observatory, Onsala, Sweden), J. Carpenter (Joint ALMA Observatory, Santiago, Chile [ALMA]), C. J. Davis (National Science Foundation, Alexandria, VA, USA), W. Dent (ALMA), J. Di Francesco (NRC Herzberg Astronomy and Astrophysics, Victoria, BC, Canada [HAA] and Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Victoria, BC, Canada [UVic]), J. Eislöffel (Thüringer Landessternwarte, Tautenburg, Germany), D. Froebrich (School of Physical Sciences, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK), A. Ginsburg (Department of Astronomy, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA), M. Heyer (Department of Astronomy, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, MA, USA), D. Johnstone (HAA and UVic), D. Mardones (Departamento de Astronomía, Universidad de Chile, Santiago, Chile), M. J. McCaughrean (European Space Agency, ESTEC, Noordwijk, The Netherlands), S. T. Megeath (Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Toledo, OH, USA), F. Nakamura (National Astronomical Observatory, Tokyo, Japan), M. D. Smith (Centre for Astrophysics and Planetary Science, School of Physical Sciences, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK), A. Stutz (Departmento de Astronomía, Facultad de Ciencias Físicas y Matemáticas, Universidad de Concepción, Chile), K. Tatematsu (Nobeyama Radio Observatory, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan, National Institutes of Natural Sciences, Nagano, Japan), C. Walker (Steward Observatory, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, US [SO]), J. P. Williams (Institute for Astronomy, University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, HI, USA), H. Zinnecker (Universidad Autonoma de Chile, Santiago, Chile), B. J. Swift (SO), C. Kulesa (SO), B. Peters (SO), B. Duffy (SO), J. Kloosterman (University of Southern Indiana, Evansville, IN, USA), U. A. Yıldız (Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA, USA [JPL]), J. L. Pineda (JPL), C. De Breuck (ESO), and Th. Klein (European Southern Observatory, Santiago, Chile).

APEX is a collaboration between the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR), the Onsala Space Observatory (OSO) and ESO. Operation of APEX at Chajnantor is entrusted to ESO.

SuperCAM is a project by the Steward Observatory Radio Astronomy Laboratory at the University of Arizona, US.

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) enables scientists worldwide to discover the secrets of the Universe for the benefit of all. We design, build and operate world-class observatories on the ground — which astronomers use to tackle exciting questions and spread the fascination of astronomy — and promote international collaboration in astronomy. Established as an intergovernmental organisation in 1962, today ESO is supported by 16 Member States (Austria, Belgium, Czechia, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom), along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a Strategic Partner. ESO’s headquarters and its visitor centre and planetarium, the ESO Supernova, are located close to Munich in Germany, while the Chilean Atacama Desert, a marvellous place with unique conditions to observe the sky, hosts our telescopes. ESO operates three observing sites: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its Very Large Telescope Interferometer, as well as two survey telescopes, VISTA working in the infrared and the visible-light VLT Survey Telescope. Also at Paranal ESO will host and operate the Cherenkov Telescope Array South, the world’s largest and most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. Together with international partners, ESO operates APEX and ALMA on Chajnantor, two facilities that observe the skies in the millimetre and submillimetre range. At Cerro Armazones, near Paranal, we are building “the world’s biggest eye on the sky” — ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope. From our offices in Santiago, Chile we support our operations in the country and engage with Chilean partners and society. 



Thomas Stanke
European Southern Observatory
Garching bei München, Germany

Bárbara Ferreira
ESO Media Manager
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6670
Cell: +49 151 241 664 00

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About the Release

Release No.:eso2201
Name:Flame Nebula
Type:Milky Way : Nebula : Appearance : Emission
Facility:Atacama Pathfinder Experiment
Science data:2022A&A...658A.178S


The Flame Nebula region as seen with APEX and VISTA
The Flame Nebula region as seen with APEX and VISTA
The Flame Nebula region as seen with APEX
The Flame Nebula region as seen with APEX
The Flame Nebula region as seen with APEX and the DSS2
The Flame Nebula region as seen with APEX and the DSS2


Multiple views of the Flame Nebula region as seen with the DSS2, VISTA and APEX
Multiple views of the Flame Nebula region as seen with the DSS2, VISTA and APEX