Probing the heart of a stellar nursery

It looks like an abstract work of art, and in a way that is just what it is. For this striking image has been produced thanks to the processing skills of space scientists to bring out the beauty of a cosmic cloud where new stars are being born.

The rosy heart of the Omega Nebula (ESO). Click to enlarge.

The swirling maelstrom at the heart of the Omega Nebula was captured in exquisite detail by the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile. It shows brilliant young stars embedded in a swirl of red gas and dust.

Those colourful ingredients provide the raw materials for creating the next generation of stars. The newest stellar infants, shining brilliantly blue-white, light up their surroundings. Smoky-looking ribbons of dust stand darkly against the gas which glows red due to the influence of intense ultraviolet rays from the hot young stars acting on great clouds of hydrogen.

The image was taken using an instrument called FORS (FOcal Reducer and Spectrograph) instrument on Antu, one of the four main telescopes that make up the VLT at Paranal. ESO say it is one of the sharpest close-up images ever taken of the nebula’s centre, helped by exceptionally steady air at their prime viewing site.

The Omega Nebula was labelled M17 by French comet hunter Charles Messier in his famous 18th-century catalogue of fuzzy objects in the sky. Lying 6,500 light-years away towards the centre of the galaxy in the constellation of Sagittarius, it has also been dubbed the Swan Nebula, the Horseshoe Nebula and the Lobster Nebula by observers. The area illuminated by young stars is estimated to be 15 light-years across and part of a cloud of interstellar matter around 40 light-years wide.

It was astronomer John Herschel, son of the famous Sir William, who noted the nebula’s resemblance to the Greek letter omega in 1833. Others see a swan’s neck. Robin Scagell, vice-president of the Society for Popular Astronomy, told Skymania News: “The swan shape is fairly easily visible with a small telescope or high-powered binoculars. It is one of the easier nebulae to observe and see a bit of shape in.”

The VLT image was produced for ESO’s Cosmic Gems programme which seeks to promote astronomy among the general public with the help of interesting, intriguing or visually attractive objects using the organisation’s telescopes.

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