A new VISTA on stellar birthplace

Telescope snaps revealing image of picturesque Orion star-forming region

Using its infrared eyes to peer into the dusty center of the Milky Way’s Orion star-forming region, the world’s largest panoramic telescope has produced a revealing new portrait of this familiar stellar nursery. The image was taken at the Paranal Observatory in northern Chile by the new 4.1-meter VISTA (for Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy) telescope, which records large sections of sky in a single exposure.

Orion lies about 1,350 light-years from Earth. Like previous images taken of the region in visible light, the center of the new picture shows the four hot, young stars known as the Trapezium, which blast ultraviolet light into surrounding space and set the Orion region aglow. But VISTA’s view also shows many other newborn stars, which in visible light are hidden by dust. Because infrared light penetrates dust, VISTA was able to record these youngsters and the high-speed streams of gas they eject.

STARS BRIGHT IN DIFFERENT LIGHT This infrared portrait of the Orion starbirth region was taken by the European Southern Observatory’s new VISTA telescope, the world’s largest wide-field-of view telescope. The image, which measures about 35 light-years from top to bottom, records radiation with about twice the wavelength of light visible to the human eye. Many of the red features just above the center are young stars and the high-speed streams of gas they eject. These stars are completely hidden by dust in visible light but can be seen at dust-penetrating infrared wavelengths. ESO

The sweeping, high-resolution image bodes well for studies of less familiar and more distant reaches of the universe to be targeted by the telescope, says VISTA researcher Richard Hook of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany. Sixteen infrared-sensitive detectors provide the telescope with 67 million pixels, giving VISTA an unprecedented width for its field of view. That capability enables VISTA to take panoramic infrared images in a much shorter time than other infrared telescopes, Hook says. The European Southern Observatory released the image, taken by VISTA last fall, on February 10.

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