Look deep enough into the darkness of space and you will find all kinds of shapes that stir the imagination. Keep watching, and you’ll soon learn that our Universe can be far stranger and more wondrous than anything the human mind can imagine.
An image recently released by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) captured just a tiny glimpse of this on a cosmic scale: a The dark nebula, 7 light-years across, looks like a titanic beacon watching over the cold, black void of space. Maybe it’s a cyclops giant looking for planets to devour. Or death itself haunts the shadowy skies.
Far from destroying worlds, this darkness represents something far more fruitful.
The new image comes from ESO’s Very Large Telescope to mark the observatory’s 60th anniversary. This is the scary subject of the picture Cone NebulaIt is said to be part of a larger complex 2,500 light years away NGC 2264 In the constellation Monoceros (Unicorn).
It may not look like many other nebulae you are used to seeing, shining brightly with a complex array of colors. Because not all nebulae are the same. Some of them reflects light nearby stars. Some are ionized by the stars inside them, they emit their own light.
Some, like the Cone Nebula, are dark, thick with dust that absorbs visible light. Only light at wavelengths invisible to the human eye, such as infrared and radio, can penetrate them.
These types of opaque nebulae are known as molecular clouds. These include some of the most interesting nebulae ever found: the birthplaces of baby stars. Dust is an efficient emitter of infrared light, which carries heat energy and causes the cloud to cool. Without the external pressure provided by the heat, gravity overcomes the clumps of dust and gas and squeezes them together.
It is these dense clusters that form the seeds of stars; as they rotate, they attract more mass than the surrounding cloud and provide the pressure needed to initiate fusion in the core of the growing protostar.
At a certain mass, a star creates what astronomers call feedback. Jets of plasma, accelerated by the star’s magnetic field lines, erupt from its poles, and intense radiation pressure from the star’s ultraviolet light. Both contribute to the stellar wind, which pushes material away from the baby star.
This is what gives the Cone Nebula its iconic shape. Burning blue and hot baby stars (although they appear golden in the new image) are in the phase of their lives where feedback is spreading through the dusty nebula. Similar processes are famously carved Pillars of Creation Structures within the Eagle Nebula.
Because infrared light can penetrate these dense clouds, instruments that can see the Universe in infrared light – such as the James Webb Space Telescope – are invaluable for revealing the characteristics of the star formation processes taking place there.
But visible light images from the VLTs show details that are missing at other wavelengths. Only by studying the full spectrum can we fully understand all that plays out in these enigmatic, fascinating structures.
You can download wallpaper-sized versions of the new image From the ESO website.
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