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Deepest ever look into Orion Nebula reveals haunting secrets

The Orion Nebula holds some surprises for scientists as they peer into its heart and dream of hidden planets.

Orion Nebula
Among their discoveries, scientists have found a treasure trove of brown dwarfs inside the Orion Nebula.
ESO/H. Drass et al.

When we think about Orion and space, we usually imagine the three stars that make up the mythical hunter's belt. To the south of that belt is the bright Orion Nebula, visible to observers on Earth in the right conditions on a dark night. The European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile looked deep into the heart of the Orion Nebula in infrared and returned a wealth of new information about the fascinating space formation.

Researchers discovered a treasure trove of brown dwarfs and "isolated planetary-mass objects" inside the nebula, way more than were previously known. Brown dwarfs hover in a nether realm of classification between planets and stars in size. According to NASA, some scientists refer to them as "failed stars." The science team submitted the findings in May to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, and the ESO shared the information on Tuesday.

The discovery is changing the way scientists think about the process of star formation within the nebula.

"Understanding how many low-mass objects are found in the Orion Nebula is very important to constrain current theories of star formation, research team member Amelia Bayo said in a news release. "We now realize that the way these very low-mass objects form depends on their environment."

This is particularly exciting because it could mean there are a lot more planet-size objects in the nebula than scientists expected.

There are limitations on how far the VLT can see. We just need to wait until the ESO's powerful European Extremely Large Telescope goes to work in 2024 to potentially confirm the presence of an abundance of Earth-size planets.