IC 2944, mag. +4.5, is a naked eye open cluster and associated emission nebula located in Centaurus. It was born 7.9 million years ago. The cluster and nebula are positioned at the southeast edge of mag. +3.1 star, lambda Centauri (λ Cen). Indeed, it's sometimes referred to as the Lambda Centauri Nebula, although the star has nothing at all to do with it. Lambda Centauri is an interloper, a foreground star that just happens to appear in the same line of view. For comparison, it's 420 light-years distant while IC 2944 lies 6,500 light-years away.
The emission nebula surrounds the cluster. It's a cloud of dust and gas some 70 to 77 light-years in diameter, located between 5,800 and 6,500 light-years away. The nebula itself is almost featureless but contains a small group of dense, opaque dark clouds known as Bok globules. They are associated with star formation, although to date no evidence has been found of star formation in any of these Bok globules. The nebula is also called the Running Chicken Nebula. This strange nickname comes from the bird-like shape of its brightest region.
IC 2944 is best seen from the Southern Hemisphere during the months of March, April and May. From many southern locations it's circumpolar and therefore never sets. It can't be seen from northern temperate locations.
IC 2944 is located in the southwestern corner of Centaurus, 7 degrees west and slightly south of Acrux (α Cru - mag. +0.8). As previously mentioned, it's easy to find since it's right next to lambda Cen (λ mag. +3.1). The surrounding region of sky is very rich. It contains many clusters and nebulae and is a superb area to scan with binoculars and wide field telescopes.
Through binoculars and small scopes, IC 2944 reveals many streams of stars. It's a loose cluster of about 30 members spread over 15 arc minutes of apparent sky. The nebula itself is much larger, covering 40 x 20 arc minutes, and more difficult to spot. With dark skies and patience it can be seen against the star rich background. Averted vision and a UHC or Olll filter offer assistance.
IC 2944 Data Table
|Name||λ Centauri Nebula|
|Object Type||Open Cluster / Emission Nebula|
|Distance (light-years)||6,500 (cluster)|
|RA (J2000)||11h 36m 36s|
|DEC (J2000)||-63d 02m 00s|
|Apparent Size (arc mins)||15 (cluster)|
|Radius (light-years)||14 (cluster)|
|Number of Stars||30 (cluster)|
|Other Names||Running Chicken Nebula|