See this star nursery shine in a stunning new infrared image

Previous visible light images of cluster RCW 38 showed much less detail

star cluster RCW 38

SINGING THE BLUES  This image from the Very Large Telescope, taken while testing a new infrared telescope, shows infant stars (blue dots) surrounded by dust (red and orange) in star cluster RCW 38.

K. Muzic/ESO

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.

ROSY OUTLOOK Earlier images of star cluster RCW 38 in visible light, such as this one, showed far less detail than those revealed in a new infrared shot. ESO

Lisa Grossman is the astronomy writer. She has a degree in astronomy from Cornell University and a graduate certificate in science writing from University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives near Boston.

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