The dark spaces between the stars are not a perfect vacuum. They are filled with very thin amounts of dust and (principally hydrogen) gas. Over time these collect in pockets and form enormous clouds so large that it can take light hundreds of years just to travel from one side to the other. These vapors are distributed more or less randomly and make up the vast proportion of material in the universe that we can see optically. The beautiful spiral arms of most galaxies that we see are predominantly comprised of these clouds in addition to countless stars (although there is also a lot of other material that we can only measure indirectly or deduce, too).

Occasionally a near-by star will go supernova by ending its life in a terrific explosion or, less frequently, another galaxy will pass close by. Either of these events, in addition to countless others, will send out waves of gravity (just like dropping a stone into water) that radiate outward and put pressure on an interstellar cloud so that it is squeezed on one side and becomes denser.

This can set off a chain reaction so that as the cloud's density increases, gravity near the center also rises. This can cause the cloud to start collapsing inward due to its own weight and, as a result, the pressure inside grows and that leads to higher temperatures. When the cloud's internal heat rises to fantastic levels, a nuclear reaction can be triggered that fuses the hydrogen gas into helium. The fusion of this material also releases gamma-ray photons. These photons can take a million years to travel outward through the overlying matter until they reach the surface and escape into space as visible light. The push of the photon's rush to make an exit also stops the cloud's collapse and thus what began as thin interstellar dust and gas becomes a brilliant star illuminating the heavens and possibly warming nearby planets.

This picture shows a place in deep space where these kinds of events have occurred. The brilliant star near the center of the picture is young and very hot- in relative terms, it was only recently created. The cloud from which it formed still surrounds this young Sun but is being blown away by the push of star's massive radiation. This brand new picture shows the way it looked 1,300 years ago due to the distance that separates it from Earth and the speed that light travels.

This place is called the Iris Nebula, due, in part, to its shape and beautiful colors. This new bloom is located in the northern constellation of Cepheus- it's in the north eastern sky most of the night this time of year. It's an appropriate subject for me to share with you since it is also the very first image produced from my 20-inch telescope located at a remote observatory in New Mexico. Flowers have always been a traditional way to celebrate special events and this first light picture fits that description perfectly!