New tech is revealing how young stars have an outsized influence on their environment. In this image from the Very Large Telescope in Chile, hundreds of newborn stars sculpt and illuminate gas and dust in their stellar nursery.
Released July 11 by the European Southern Observatory, the image shows star cluster RCW 38, which is located about 5,500 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Vela, in infrared light. Bright young stars shine in blue, while streams of cooler dust glow in darker red and orange. The stars are so bright and hot that their radiation pushes the dust and gas around them into intricate lacelike webs.
Previous pictures of this cluster taken in visible light were far less detailed, as the dust and gas blocked the stars’ light. But longer-wavelength infrared light can shine through the fog.
This image was taken while astronomers were testing a new observation system on the Chilean telescope, including an infrared imager called HAWK-I and a method to reduce blurriness called GRAAL. GRAAL projects four lasers onto the sky to act as artificial stars (SN: 6/14/03, p. 373), letting astronomers focus on a “star” of known brightness and subtract the fuzziness of Earth’s atmosphere. That adjustment lets astronomers bring the real star cluster into sharper focus.