ESO captures an ominous view of a dark nebula
The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has released the most detailed view to date of the ominous Lupus 3 dark nebula, one of the closest star formation regions to our Sun. Lupus 3 is located roughly 600 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Scorpius, and is known to host a population of young stellar bodies and protostars.
Nebulae are stunning collections of cosmic dust and gas that famously shine in the reflected light of the super hot, bright, young stars that pepper their diffuse forms. The more massive and brightly-colored specimens often steal the limelight, and it's not difficult to understand why.
Take the Tarantula Nebula (also known as 30 Doradus) – an imposing, 1,000 light-year-wide stellar nursery located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is known to have birthed some of the most massive stars discovered to date. While these monster nebulae are an awe-inspiring sight, they are not representative of the conditions in which the majority of the stars in the Milky Way coalesced into existence.
Most of the stars in our galaxy formed in smaller nurseries, like the newly-imaged Lupus 3, and this makes it a fascinating target for astronomers attempting to understand how stars come to form and evolve.
Lupus 3 is a dark nebula, otherwise known as an absorption nebula. The dust particles that form this particular breed of cosmic cloud are so cold and dense that they effectively block and scatter much of the light being emanated by the stellar bodies embedded within, giving them a dark, foreboding appearance.
The new ESO release is actually a collage formed from numerous smaller images captured by the ESO's VLT Survey Telescope and MPG/ESO 2.2 meter telescope, both of which are located in Chile.
Lupus 3 can be seen as a wispy, almost serpentine dark cloud obscuring the dense starfield beyond the nebula. The muted aspect of the structure belies the intense star formation processes occurring within.
Disturbances in the molecular dust that makes up the nebula causes it to come together to form a knot of material denser than the surrounding matter. Over time, more and more material is drawn in, until the high-density pocket collapses under its own gravitational attraction, and begins to heat up, leading to the eventual creation of one, or even multiple, protostars.
This is the same process that resulted in the birth of our Sun some 4 billion years ago, and much more recently created the two dazzling stars prominently visible in the center of the image above.
These intermediate mass, bright blue stellar bodies, known as Herbig Ae/Be (HAeBe) stars, used to be hidden in the choking mass of the nebula along with the population of protostars. However, since their creation less than 1 million years ago, they have grown significantly hotter, and larger. This transformation has fueled intense solar winds and an outpouring of radiation from the energetic stars that has effectively cleared away the surrounding nebula material, allowing them to emerge and shine out into the cosmos.
Despite their ability to disrupt the nebula, the HAeBe Stars have not yet matured to the point that the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium has been triggered in their cores. The light they shine with is the result of the conversion of gravitational energy into heat as their cores contract.
The video below zooms in on the new image from the perspective of Earth.