Rare Photo of Dark 'Snake Nebula' Lupus 3 Could Finally Solve the Mystery of How Stars Are Born

Wednesday, 31 January 2018 - 10:59AM
Science News
Wednesday, 31 January 2018 - 10:59AM
Rare Photo of Dark 'Snake Nebula' Lupus 3 Could Finally Solve the Mystery of How Stars Are Born
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Image credit: ESO

Far away, deep within the Scorpius constellation, there exists a dark expanse of cosmic clouds known as Lupus 3. The nebula is easily recognizable thanks to its long, wiggly shape that makes it look like a single dark swirl in amid a far brighter smattering of stars.

Recently, two telescopes in Chile, the VLT Survey Telescope and the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope, have been taking a closer look at the Lupus 3 nebula, and have managed to produce an absolutely stunning photo that shows off all the surrounding twinkling lights in all their glory.

Most excitingly, however, this picture also captures the birth of new stars within the nebula, as fresh balls of light burst into existence within the darkest part of this celestial spectacle.

These are not sudden moments of explosion that instantly die down; the view that can be seen in this picture will probably remain more or less unchanged throughout our lifetimes, but what's noteworthy is that this is the best, clearest, most detailed picture of Lupus 3 that has ever been taken, giving us a spectacular view of what it looks like when new stars form.

These stars are about 600 light years away, meaning that the sight we're now witnessing took place during the 1500s, when our stargazing technology wouldn't have been able to see anywhere near this far.

As a dark nebula, Lupus 3 is particularly interesting. Typical nebula give off a beautiful glow as a result of all the hot stars that are churning into existence within them. Lupus 3, on the other hand, is a kind of nebula that instead absorbs and disperses light, which is why it appears so dark by comparison with the bright new stars that are forming in its belly.

This also means, conveniently, that Lupus 3 has a lot of potential for helping scientists to get a better understanding of how stars form in the first place. There are no other lights behind the nebula, nor surrounding the newly formed stars, that might otherwise obscure our view of these fledgling balls of gas. We're able to look with relative clarity and focus at what happens immediately after these stars form.

The two biggest stars in the picture, for example, aren't the newest to form. At the start of its life, a star will typically be relatively small and dim, before bursting forth and growing bigger and brighter over time. They're also brighter because they've consumed much of the dust and debris that permeates the nebula, meaning that there's less obstructing our view—which is why they look so shiny and clean.

Thus, in this picture, we're able to clearly compare the smaller stars within the nebula with their older siblings.

There's a lot of research to be done into the formation of stars and other bodies within this nebula, and no doubt many astronomers will be keeping a close eye on the area over the next while, but for those of us who are just interested in looking at pretty pictures of the stars, there's certainly enough here to keep us entertained.

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