NASA’s “Christmas Tree Cluster” Rendered in Stellar Image

by François Dupont
Christmas Tree Cluster

NASA has created a remarkable image of the “Christmas Tree Cluster,” or NGC 2264, a youthful star cluster in our Milky Way galaxy, located approximately 2,500 light-years from Earth. This particular representation, achieved through strategic color selection and image rotation, transforms these stars of various sizes into the semblance of a cosmic Christmas tree. Acknowledgments: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: T.A. Rector (NRAO/AUI/NSF, NOIRLab/NSF/AURA), B.A. Wolpa (NOIRLab/NSF/AURA); Infrared: NASA/NSF/IPAC/CalTech/Univ. of Massachusetts; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/L. Frattare, J.Major.

NGC 2264, commonly referred to as the “Christmas Tree Cluster,” is a vibrant cluster of young stars in the Milky Way, now presented in an enhanced form that mirrors a cosmic Christmas tree.

This cluster, NGC 2264, comprises young stars, now colorized and rotated to highlight its alias, the “Christmas Tree Cluster.”
The composite image features X-rays from Chandra (blue and white), optical data from WIYN (green gas), and infrared data from 2MASS (white stars).
These stars, aged between one and five million years, are significantly younger than our 5 billion-year-old Sun.
Unlike the coordinated display in the animation, young stars emit strong, uncoordinated flares in X-rays and other wavelengths.
Stellar Showcase: NGC 2264’s “Christmas Tree” Formation

This latest depiction of NGC 2264, the “Christmas Tree Cluster,” reveals a celestial tree adorned with glowing starlights. Located around 2,500 light-years away in the Milky Way, NGC 2264 consists of young stars, their ages ranging from one to five million years. These stars, both smaller and larger than the Sun, vary from less than one-tenth to about seven times the Sun’s mass.

A Vivid Composite Depiction: Color and Orientation

The composite image brings the Christmas tree resemblance to life through color manipulation and orientation. The blue and white elements, flickering in the animation (refer to video), represent young X-ray emitting stars as observed by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Optical data from the WIYN 0.9-meter telescope, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, display the cluster’s gaseous nebula in green, likening it to the tree’s foliage. Additionally, infrared data from the Two Micron All Sky Survey illustrates both foreground and background stars in white. This image has undergone a 160-degree clockwise rotation from the conventional North-up astronomical orientation, presenting the tree’s apex at the top of the image.

The composite image illustrates the Christmas Tree Cluster, with the young, X-ray emitting stars shown in blue and white (blinking in the animated version). The National Science Foundation’s WIYN 0.9-meter telescope at Kitt Peak contributes optical data displaying the nebula’s gas in green, akin to tree foliage, while infrared data from the Two Micron All Sky Survey reveals stars in white. This image is rotated clockwise by approximately 160 degrees from the standard North-up orientation, positioning the tree’s apex upwards.

Stellar Behavior and Imaging Techniques

The young stars in NGC 2264 are dynamic, emitting strong X-ray flares and exhibiting various light variations across different wavelengths. The animated, coordinated blinking is an artificial enhancement to spotlight the X-ray-visible stars and accentuate the Christmas tree resemblance. In actuality, these stellar variations are not in sync.

These observed variations, captured by Chandra and other telescopes, stem from multiple processes. Some are linked to magnetic field activities, including powerful flares akin to the Sun’s but more intense, and changing star surface features like hot spots and dark regions that become visible as the stars rotate. Variations also occur due to changes in the obscuring gas thickness and the amount of material accreting onto the stars from their surrounding gas disks.

The Chandra program is overseen by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, while the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, manages scientific operations, and flight operations are conducted from Burlington, Massachusetts.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Christmas Tree Cluster

What is the “Christmas Tree Cluster”?

The “Christmas Tree Cluster” is a nickname for NGC 2264, a cluster of young stars in the Milky Way galaxy. It is about 2,500 light-years from Earth and is characterized by its unique arrangement and appearance, resembling a cosmic Christmas tree.

How was the image of the “Christmas Tree Cluster” created?

The image is a composite made from X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (showing young stars in blue and white), optical data from the WIYN 0.9-meter telescope (depicting nebula gas in green), and infrared data from the Two Micron All Sky Survey (showing stars in white). The image was rotated to enhance its resemblance to a Christmas tree.

What are the characteristics of the stars in the “Christmas Tree Cluster”?

The stars in the “Christmas Tree Cluster” are young, ranging between one and five million years old, which is much younger compared to our Sun’s age of 5 billion years. These stars vary in size and mass, with some being less than a tenth of the Sun’s mass and others up to seven times larger.

How do the stars in NGC 2264 compare to the Sun?

The stars in NGC 2264 are significantly younger and more volatile than our Sun. They produce strong flares in X-rays and other types of light, but unlike the coordinated blinking shown in animations, these flares are uncoordinated in reality.

Who manages the Chandra program that observed the “Christmas Tree Cluster”?

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program, with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center controlling science and flight operations from Cambridge and Burlington, Massachusetts, respectively.

More about Christmas Tree Cluster

  • NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory
  • Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS)
  • WIYN 0.9-meter telescope, Kitt Peak
  • Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center
  • NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

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MarkusP December 21, 2023 - 10:35 am

NASA’s always doing some incredible stuff but this? its like art and science had a baby haha, great job with the imaging guys

Tim_Rocks December 21, 2023 - 11:01 am

that’s some serious tech they got there, chandra x-ray, WIYN telescope and all. just shows what we can do when we put our minds to it. go science!

Sara Luv December 21, 2023 - 1:13 pm

i read about NGC 2264 before but seeing it like this is just mindblowing, it’s so beautiful, kinda puts things into perspective, you know

Jessie T December 21, 2023 - 1:31 pm

wow, I never knew stars could look like a Christmas tree! this is really cool, shows how amazing the universe is, right?

Raj Patel December 21, 2023 - 3:52 pm

it’s amazing how young these stars are compared to our sun, makes you think about how vast and varied the universe is

Karen B December 21, 2023 - 11:52 pm

gotta love how NASA makes space so interesting for everyone, this is the kind of stuff that gets kids excited about science!

EllieQ December 22, 2023 - 2:19 am

Ok but how do they even figure out to rotate it to look like a tree? astronomers are like magicians sometimes, so cool


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