As the dome of twilight sinks below the horizon, a mechanical corps de ballet starts a slow-motion pirouette with each dancer keeping the unblinking eye of a telescope locked on a single spot in the heavens. Shutters open and ancient photons, ending a journey that may have started before the earth was born, collide with sensors that store an electron to mark that photon’s arrival. With the dance in motion the directors sit back to watch the show; another imaging session has begun . . . .
There is something rewarding in catching photons, having traveled for millennia, just before they hit my grass and are lost forever. Turn off the lights and click the images to enlarge.

The Christmas Tree Cluster is part of a larger area 2,700 ly away designated as NGC 2264 that includes the Cone Nebula, Snowflake Cluster, and the Fox Fur Nebula. The Cone Nebula's shape comes from a dark absorption nebula consisting of cold molecular hydrogen and dust in front of a faint emission nebula containing hydrogen ionized by S Monocerotis, the brightest star of NGC 2264. The faint nebula is approximately seven light-years long. Ultraviolet light heats the edges of the dark cloud, releasing gas into the relatively empty region of surrounding space. There, additional ultraviolet radiation causes the hydrogen gas to glow, which produces the red halo of light seen around the pillar. The blue-white light from surrounding stars is reflected by dust. Over time, only the densest regions of the Cone will be left and these regions form stars and planets.
In 5,500 B.C., a star in the constellation Taurus died a violent, fiery death creating an expanding wave of gas and dust as the pressure within the star became stronger than the gravity holding it together. Centuries later, on July 4, AD 054, the first light of the explosion reached Earth and was observed by astronomers worldwide. The “guest” star was bright enough to be seen in the daytime for 23 days, originally shining six times brighter than Venus, and remained visible in the night sky, to the naked eye, for nearly 2 years. This supernova is now known as Messier 1, the Crab Nebula. It is much dimmer now that the gas and debris has spread out 6 light years. The ejected material is moving at more than 3 million mph. The ultra dense core of the exploded star is now a neutron star embedded in the center of the nebula. Electrons orbiting at nearly the speed of light in its magnetic field lines produce blue light in the interior of the nebula. This pulsar is only a few miles in diameter but 100,000 times as energetic as our sun and emits twin beams of radiation that make it appear to pulse 30 times per second as it spins.