ESO’s Latest Dramatic Landscape

The universe is stunning. Images from even the most modest telescopes can unveil its brilliant beauty. But couple that with a profound reason — our ability to question and understand the physical laws that dominate that brilliant beauty — and the image transforms into something much more spectacular.

Take ESO’s latest image of two dramatic star formation regions in the southern Milky Way. John Herschel first observed the cluster on the left in 1834, during his three-year expedition to systematically survey the southern skies near Cape Town. He described it as a remarkable object and thought it might be a globular cluster. But future studies (and not to mention more dramatic images from larger telescopes) enriched our understanding, demonstrating that it was not an old globular but a young open cluster.

This chart shows the constellation of Carina (The Keel) and includes all the stars that can be seen with the unaided eye on a clear and dark night. This region of the sky includes some of the brightest star formation regions in the Milky Way. The location of the distant, but very bright and compact, open star cluster NGC 3603 is marked. This object is not spectacular in small telescopes, appearing as just a tight clump of stars surrounded by faint nebulosity. Credit: ESO
This chart shows the constellation of Carina and includes all the stars that can be seen with the unaided eye on a clear and dark night. The location of the open star cluster NGC 3603 is marked. This object is not spectacular in small telescopes, appearing as just a tight clump of stars surrounded by faint nebulosity. Credit: ESO

The Wide Field Imager at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile recently captured the image again. The bright region on the left is the star cluster NGC 3603, located 20,000 light-years away in the Carina-Sagittarius spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy. The bright region on the right is a collection of glowing gas clouds known as NGC 3576, located only 10,000 light-years away.

Stars are born in enormous clouds of gas and dust, largely hidden from view. But as small pockets in these clouds collapse under the pull of gravity, they become so hot they ignite nuclear fusion, and their light clears away — and brightens — the surrounding gas and dust.

Nearby regions of hydrogen gas are heated, and therefore partially ionized, by the ultraviolet radiation given off by the brilliant hot young stars. These regions, better known as HII regions, can measure several hundred light-years in diameter, and the one surrounding NGC 3603 has the distinction of being the most massive known in our galaxy.

Not only is NGC 3603 known for having the most massive HII region, it’s known for having the highest concentration of massive stars that have been discovered in our galaxy so far. At the center lies a Wolf-Rayet star system. These stars begin their lives at 20 times the mass of the Sun, but evolve quickly while shedding a considerable amount of their matter. Intense stellar winds blast the star’s surface into space at  several million kilometers per hour.

Where NGC 3603 is notable for its extremes, NGC 3576 is notable for its extremities — the two huge curved objects in the outreaches of the cluster. Often described as the curled horns of a ram, these odd filaments are the result of stellar winds from the hot, young stars within the central regions of the nebula. The stars have blown the dust and gas outwards across a hundred light-years.

Additionally, the two dark silhouetted areas near the top of the nebula are known as Bok globules, dusty regions found near star formation sights. These dark clouds absorb nearby light and offer potential sites for the future formation of stars. They may further sculpt the dramatic landscape above, which is the smallest slice of our stunning universe

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An Amazing Anniversary Image from the VLT

This Saturday will mark 15 years that the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) first opened its eyes on the Universe, and ESO is celebrating its first-light anniversary with a beautiful and intriguing new image of the stellar nursery IC 2944, full of bright young stars and ink-black clouds of cold interstellar dust.

This is the clearest ground-based image yet of IC 2944, located 6,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Centaurus.

Emission nebulae like IC 2944 are composed mostly of hydrogen gas that glows in a distinctive shade of red, due to the intense radiation from the many brilliant newborn stars. Clearly revealed against this bright backdrop are mysterious dark clots of opaque dust, cold clouds known as Bok globules. They are named after Dutch-American astronomer Bart Bok, who first drew attention to them in the 1940s as possible sites of star formation. This particular set is nicknamed the Thackeray Globules.

Larger Bok globules in quieter locations often collapse to form new stars but the ones in this picture are under fierce bombardment from the ultraviolet radiation from nearby hot young stars. They are both being eroded away and also fragmenting, like lumps of butter dropped into a hot frying pan. It is likely that Thackeray’s Globules will be destroyed before they can collapse and form stars.

This new picture celebrates an important anniversary for the the VLT – it will be fifteen years since first light on the first of its four Unit Telescopes on May 25, 1998. Since then the four original giant telescopes have been joined by the four small Auxiliary Telescopes that form part of the VLT Interferometer (VLTI) – one of the most powerful and productive ground-based astronomical facilities in existence.

The selection of images below — one per year — gives a taste of the VLT’s scientific productivity since first light in 1998:

A selection of images from 15 years of the VLT
A selection of images from 15 years of the VLT (Credits: ESO/P.D. Barthel/M. McCaughrean/M. Andersen/S. Gillessen et al./Y. Beletsky/R. Chini/T. Preibisch)

Read more on the ESO site here, and watch an ESOCast video below honoring the VLT’s fifteen-year milestone:

Happy Anniversary VLT!

Source: ESO

Cosmic Ink-blot Test: Can You See the Gecko in Space?

This image from the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, shows the bright star cluster NGC 6520 and its neighbour, the strangely shaped dark cloud Barnard 86. This cosmic pair is set against millions of glowing stars from the brightest part of the Milky Way — a region so dense with stars that barely any dark sky is seen across the picture.

A small, isolated dark nebula known as a Bok globule was described as “a drop of ink on the luminous sky” by its discoverer, astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard. Through a small telescope, the object seen here, Barnard 86, does appear as though someone may have dropped a blob of dark ink on the telescope lens. Or perhaps it appears as a spot where there are no stars, or a window into a patch of distant, clearer sky. However, this object is actually in the foreground of the star field — a cold, dark, dense cloud made up of small dust grains that block starlight and make the region appear opaque. It is thought to have formed from the remnants of a molecular cloud that collapsed to form the nearby star cluster NGC 6520, seen just to the left of Barnard 86 in this image.

Some say Barnard 86 looks like a gecko … can you see the resemblance?

This image was taken with the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. This cosmic pair is set against millions of glowing stars from the brightest part of the Milky Way — a region so dense with stars that barely any dark sky is seen across the picture.

It is located in the constellation of Sagittarius in one of the richest star fields in the whole sky, the Large Sagittarius Star Cloud. The huge number of stars that light up this region dramatically emphasize the blackness of dark clouds like Barnard 86.

For more info on this image, see this ESO page.

Can You Spot the Running Chicken in this Nebula?

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A brand new image from the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope reveals the Lambda Centauri Nebula, a cloud of glowing hydrogen and newborn stars in the constellation of Centaurus. The nebula is also known as IC 2944. But it also has one of the most unique nicknames of any other nebula: The Running Chicken Nebula. Can you see a chicken shape in pictures of this red star-forming region? There is some disagreement over exactly which part of the nebula is chicken shaped, with various bird-like features showing up across the picture.

The Running Chicken lies around 6,500 light-years from Earth, and hot newborn stars that formed from clouds of hydrogen gas shine brightly with ultraviolet light. This intense radiation in turn excites the surrounding hydrogen cloud, making it glow a distinctive shade of red.

The other features in this image that stand are the opaque black clumps silhouetted against the red background in part of this image. These are examples of a type of object called Bok globules. They appear dark as they absorb the light from the luminous background. However, observations of these dark clouds using infrared telescopes, which are able to see through the dust that normally blocks visible light, have revealed that stars are forming within many of them.

ESO is having a contest on their Flickr page where you can submit your views of where the chicken outline lies on this, and in participating, you can win some prizes from ESO.

Source: ESO