A fantastic new example of astronomy as art as well as science has been produced using the power of one of the world’s most advanced observatories.
The sweeping canvas, showing a starscape in the heart of the Milky Way, was painstakingly built from hundreds of individual images taken with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile.
It shows a giant cloud of gas and dust called the Carina Nebula that is one of the closest nurseries of young stars to Earth at a distance of around 7,500 light-years. But it has long fascinated astronomers because of the presence of one star, Eta Carinae, within the nebula that appears to be on the verge, in cosmic terms, of exploding as a supernova.
Eta, which never rises above the horizon from the UK or most of the United States, is nowadays a fairly inconspicuous star of around fourth magnitude so that you might have trouble seeing it in a light-polluted sky. However, in the mid-19th century it became the second brightest star in the sky.
Research has shown that it is highly unstable and liable to blow in the relatively near future. The Carina Nebula, which contains many of the intrinsically brightest and heaviest stars known, is therefore giving astronomers the chance to study stars at the beginning and the end of their lives.
The trouble has been that many of the secrets of the Carina Nebula have stayed hidden behind dense clouds of dust. ESO astronomers have managed to penetrate this thick veil however from the VLT observatory at Paranal, one of the world’s finest and driest sites.
They did so by attaching an infrared-sensitive called HAWK-I to the telescope, whose altitude and climate allowed that part of the spectrum to be examined. ESO understandably describe their new picture as one of the most dramatic images ever created by the VLT. It shows not just the bright massive stars, but hundreds of thousands of much fainter stars that were previously hidden.
Eta Carinae appears at the lower left of the new picture, wrapped in clouds of gas which glow from the effect of heavy ultraviolet radiation. Many compact blobs of dark material remain opaque across the picture, even in the infrared. They are the dusty cocoons where new stars are being born.
The sparkling jewelbox near the centre of the picture us a cluster of stars called Trumpler 14 that was already well known. However, other clusters are only just revealed thanks to this new camera, such as the small grouping of yellow stars towards the left side of the picture.