Chapter I: Where Stars are Born
The Origins of all Suns
The Sun is the brightest star in our sky, but it is by no means the largest nor brightest star in the Universe. It is a rather average star, but owing to its proximity to us, we have been bathing in its life-giving warmth for billions of years.
If we were able to fly at a speed of a conventional airliner, heading straight towards the Sun, it would take us almost 20 years to get there. While distant by human standards, it is a stone's throw compared to the 5,200,000 years it would take to arrive at the next nearest star.
Our relative closeness to the Sun tells us something very fundamental about its relationship to the Earth, which is that the Earth and Sun, along with the rest of the Solar System, formed together in the same collapsing cloud of gas. Accordingly, the Earth and Sun came to be some 4.6 billion years ago, and from then onwards, the Sun became the primary source of energy that powered the processes of the Earth.
As day turns into night, the glare of the Sun diminishes into the distant horizon. Here, our view of the thousands (when seen by the naked eye) of even more distant Suns begin. Although many of them are larger and brighter than the Sun, their sheer distance from us relegates them into faint twinkling points of starlight. As we peer into the heavens above, a new world is revealed.
Enter the Nebula
Pointing even a small telescope into the sky, millions of stars now come within reach of the human eye. Within these star fields, however, we often come across fuzzy regions distinct from the sharp and point-like profile of stars themselves. In the earlier days, the first astronomers looking through telescopes thought that they looked like clouds or "nebulae", as they were known in latin.
Although the night sky is littered with fuzzy regions, the modern day use of the word "nebula" is generally more restricted to describing gas clouds. These extended gaseous regions are enormous, taking light many years to traverse its length.
Accordingly, many (but not all) nebulae are stellar nurseries. Stars like the Sun are made up primarily of gases, which is no wonder why the fuel-rich gas clouds of nebulae are often active star-forming regions. Some of these nebulae are bright and close enough to Earth that we can even see them with the naked eye. The Orion Nebula, which I have photographed above, is one such example. While it appears as a slightly fuzzy "star" at the sword of the constellation of Orion, it is not a star, but a creator of stars. When viewed through even a small telescope, one can easily see its luminous gas clouds, powered by radiation from the hot, young stars born within.
The colours depicted in these images are every bit genuine, even though these objects often don't show any hints of colour when observed visually through a telescope. The reason for this is their faintness: These photographs involves sensitive digital cameras that can collect light over the span of hours to build up a single image, a feat unachievable by the human eye. However, the filters that are used in the photography these objects are calibrated in a consistent manner to that of human vision, giving us a view of the Universe in true faith to its actual colours.
The Beauty of "Creation"
Astronomical images of nebulae are compelling not just because of their naturally prismatic colours, but because they signify the natural forces of creation from which we came from. Conceivably, the Sun and Earth also had to come from one of these star-forming regions, although with the passage of time, the solar system eventually drifted away, and we have almost no way of figuring out where our "home nebula" is.
Despite that, we are fortunate to live on a planet with a transparent atmosphere to allow us to see these other star forming regions, eventually putting together the puzzle of where the materials making up our bodies came from.
Although stars are made up primarily of the two most basic elements, hydrogen and helium, trace amounts of heavier elements are also present, and many of these were forged within the furnaces of past stars that have lived, died, and eventually found their way into new stellar nurseries. The Earth is made up, in a large part, by these heavier trace elements which only appeared after the deaths of earlier generations of stars long gone.