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Gary Zientara/Mount Sangre Observatory

Elephant's Trunk Nebula in the circumpolar constellation Cepheus the King of Ethiopia.

Newborn stars are celestial sculptors.

The nebulae they were born in become the "clay" that they fashion with the birthing cries of their intense stellar winds. One resembles a horse's head. Another looks like a rose with its petals unfurled.

This one mimics an elephant's trunk complete with two bright stars marking the "nostrils." The Elephant's Trunk Nebula is only a small part of a much larger gas and dust cloud located in the circumpolar constellation Cepheus the King of Ethiopia. Circumpolar constellations are so named because they are close enough to one of the Earth's polar axes that they never set below the horizon.

What makes this nebula somewhat unique is it's lit up primarily from what looks like a single star - the brightest one in the lower left of the photo. This star - really three stars orbiting each other - does three things. The star system's intense radiation energizes or ionizes the hydrogen in the nebula, causing it to glow or emit light in the Red and Hydrogen Alpha bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. The surface temperature of the triple star - seen in hot blue - reflects like a mirror off nearby dust. And finally, the high velocity particles thrown off the star trio act as the "hands" that sculpt the nebula.

This image is formed from 40 frames taken through five different color filters from Mount Sangre Observatory near Angel Fire during early September. The Elephant's Trunk Nebula formal designation is IC 1396A and is located in our home Milky Way galaxy 2,400 light years from Earth. Practically all of the brightest stars are found in the nebula. The rest are all background stars in the Milky Way. I am always amazed at how many stars show up in such small 1/2-degree wide windows into the cosmos.

October star calendar

Oct. 1 (Thursday): Full harvest moon

Oct. 2 (Friday): Mars within 1 degree above the nearly full moon.

Oct. 6 (Tuesday): Mars at closest approach to Earth. Mars will be very bright tonight at almost magnitude minus 3 with its southern polar ice cap clearly visible in small telescopes equipped with high power eye pieces. In fact, the entire month of October is a great time to see the red planet.

Oct. 13 (Tuesday): Mars at opposition

Oct. 31 (Saturday) Halloween: Full hunter's moon and also a "blue moon," not because it will look blue, but rather because it marks the second full moon in the same month.

Gary Zientara is owner and operator of Mount Sangre Observatory in Angel Fire, New Mexico.

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