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From darkness comes the light

Lupus 3 dark cloud

The Lupus 3 dark cloud, about 600 light-years from Earth, is a region where new stars are forming. Alongside is a cluster of brilliant stars that have already emerged from their dusty stellar nursery.

  • Lupus 3 stellar nursery is about 600 light-years from Earth
  • New stars are forming out of the dark dust clouds

A NEW IMAGE RELEASED by the European Southern Observatory shows a dark cloud where new stars are forming, along with a cluster of brilliant stars that have already emerged from their dusty stellar nursery.

The new picture was taken with the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile and is the best image ever taken at visible light wavelengths of this little-known object.

The cloud is known as Lupus 3, and it lies about 600 light-years from Earth. The section shown here is about five light-years across.

On the left of this new image there is a dark cloud that contains huge amounts of cool cosmic dust and is a nursery where new stars are being born. It is likely that the Sun formed in a similar star formation region more than four billion years ago.

As the denser parts of such clouds contract under the effects of gravity they heat up and start to shine – they’re new stars. At first their light is blocked by the dusty clouds and can be seen only by telescopes observing at longer wavelengths than visible light, such as infrared. But as the stars get hotter and brighter, their intense radiation and stellar winds gradually clear the clouds around them until they emerge in all their glory.

The bright stars on the right are a perfect example. Some of their brilliant blue light is being scattered off the remaining dust around them. The two brightest stars can be seen easily with a small telescope or binoculars. They are young stars that have not yet started to shine by nuclear fusion in their cores and are still surrounded by glowing gas. They’re probably less than one million years old.

Wider view of Lupus 3

A wider view of Lupus 3 shows the extent of the dark dust cloud, silhouetted against the starry background of our galaxy.

Adapted from information issued by ESO. Images courtesy ESO / F. Comeron / Digitised Sky Survey 2 / Davide De Martin.

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The Trifid Nebula

The Trifid Nebula

Dark "lanes" of dense interstellar dust trisect the glowing gas of the Trifid Nebula, 9,000 light-years from Earth.

Nine-thousand light-years away in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius, lies the famous Trifid Nebula, so-called for the three dark “lanes” that trisect it.

The Trifid’s triple nature is not limited to the lanes though. It is also three different types of nebulosity in one…it is a reflection, emission and dark nebula in one neat package.

A nebula is a cloud of gas and sometimes dust, floating in interstellar space.

Reflection nebulae have a bluish colour. We see them because light from nearby stars is reflecting off them—the process preferentially reflects the blue wavelengths of the starlight.

Emission nebulae are pinkish. In this case they’re not reflecting light, but emitting their own pale glow. (In the case of the image above, the emission nebulosity looks orange due to the particular wavelength observation used to make the image.)

Silhouetted against brighter backgrounds, dark nebulae stand out like ghostly holes in space. In reality they are very dense clouds of gas and dust particles—they don’t give off or reflect any light to speak of.

The Trifid was discovered in 1764 by the French astronomer Charles Messier, who made it number 20 in his catalogue of “deep sky” objects…hence it’s other common name, M 20.

Messier was a comet hunter who had become frustrated by repeatedly coming across fuzzy blobs in the sky that didn’t turn out to be comets. He decided to make a catalogue of those blobs so that he and other astronomers could learn to ignore them in future.

Ironically, he is now better known for his list of 103 deep sky objects (more were added later by other astronomers) than he is for the 13 comets he discovered.

At the time, Messier thought M 20 was actually a small bunch of stars that couldn’t quite be seen individually. But he did notice the three dark lanes running through it, and gave it the name Trifid.

Story by Jonathan Nally, editor SpaceInfo.com.au

Image courtesy IAC / Daniel López.

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