The European Southern Observatory's VISTA telescope has captured a breath-taking view of the Carina Nebula – one of the Milky Way's largest star-forming regions. The image reveals the complexity of the nebula hidden behind its dusty shroud, and showcases some of the most massive and brightest stars in our galaxy.
Located roughly 7,500 light-years from Earth, the Carina Nebula is one of the brightest nebulae in the night sky. While the nebula is easy visible to the naked eye for viewers in the Southern Hemisphere, a powerful telescope is needed to appreciate the maelstrom of creation and destruction raging within the enormous cosmic structure.
Scientists at the Paranal Observatory, Chile, used the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) to capture a stunningly detailed 11,800 x 12,608-pixel image of the Nebula.
VISTA observes the universe in the visible and near-infrared light spectrums. The telescope houses a three-tonne camera with 16 cutting-edge infrared sensors. This camera, with the help of VISTA's 4.1 meter (13.5 ft) primary mirror, is capable of capturing stunningly-detailed wide-angle views of the universe.
Cosmic objects such as newly born stars are often hidden from the high-powered gaze of some telescopes by the clouds of dust and gas from which they formed. While these massive clouds are very good at blocking light emitted in the visible portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, infrared light is able to pass through the obstructing clouds relatively unscathed.
Infrared observatories such as VISTA open up a different view of the cosmos compared to visible light telescopes, allowing astronomers to build a more complete understanding of the universe we inhabit.
In the new image, VISTA's infrared vision reveals a diverse collection of both youthful and aging stars, and highlights the influence that these stellar giants have on the structure of the 300 light-year-wide nebula.
Many of the stars shown in the image are extremely energetic, pouring out vast amounts of ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds that disperse and destroy the surrounding material.
Some of that radiation is absorbed by the clouds, causing them to emit their own soft glow. Elsewhere, dense pillars of dust cut dark profiles against a backdrop of glowing gas and a sea of stars.
Eta Carinae, one of the most massive and brightest stellar systems in the Milky Way, can be easily spotted nestled in the center of a v-shaped dust formation. The bright point of light is thought to be not one, but a number of stars interacting with each other.
In the 1830s, Eta Carinae became one of the brightest objects in the night sky, though it has since dimmed significantly. Astronomers believe that the sudden increase in luminosity was due to a colossal eruption of energy from the most massive star in the Eta Carinae system.
This cosmic explosion unleashed about the same amount of energy as one of the most violent events known to occur in our universe – a supernova explosion. Two scientific papers published this year suggest that the explosion could have marked the climax of a dramatic interaction between the massive star and two of its smaller siblings, during which one was devoured, with the other left in a binary system with the cosmic cannibal.
To the right of Eta Carinae is the Keyhole Nebula, which itself contains a number of massive stars.
The ESO video below zooms in on the Carina Nebula.
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