‘Celestial Artwork’: ESO Unveils Stunning Photo Of Young Star Cluster 5,500 Light-Years Away

K. MuzicESO

The Very Large Telescope (VLT) of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has been keeping busy. Stationed at the Paranal Observatory in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, the telescope has recently undergone a series of tests for one of its cameras, dubbed the Hawk-1.

Mounted on the Unit Telescope 4 (Yepun — named after Venus, as in “the evening star,” notes ESO), Hawk-1 is an infrared imager, meaning that it’s specialized in snapping photos in the infrared wavelength.

This comes in handy when making science observations of embedded stellar clusters, which are open clusters (a few thousand stars of the same age, formed from the same giant molecular cloud) that are still surrounded by the molecular cloud which spawned them.

One such example is RCW 38, a young star cluster located about 5,500 light-years away from Earth, in the constellation of Vela (The Sails).

Like all embedded clusters, RCW 38 is teeming with activity. Per Galaxy Map, this relatively close star-birthing region is continuously churning new stars and is home to about 2,000 massive stars less than a million years old.

Because RCW 38 is still enveloped in the dense material of the molecular cloud that created it, observations in visible light make it appear obscured, yielding only a partial view of far fewer stars than the cluster actually contains.

Here’s where the Hawk-1 comes in. The VLT’s infrared camera has peered through the sky and managed to capture a view of RCW 38 in unprecedented detail.

Hawk VLT test obesrevation.
Featured image credit: K. MuzicESO

Released today by ESO, the Hawk-1 photo above reveals a stunning view of RCW 38 that has never been captured before, state officials from the observatory.

“It shows the cluster and its surrounding clouds of brightly glowing gas in exquisite detail, with dark tendrils of dust threading through the bright core of this young gathering of stars.”

Because these stars are so young — RCW 38 even contains protostars that haven’t fully formed yet — the bright stellar nursery at the center of the cluster still emits tremendous amounts of radiation, which makes it appear blue in the Hawk-1 photo.

The rest of the snapshot is made up of orange and red billows of cosmic dust swirling among the bright stars, and which glow in fainter, darker hues because they are cooler than the newborn stars.

This stunning contrast is what makes the photo so mesmerizing, creating — as ESO describes it — “a piece of celestial artwork.”

The newly-released photo was snapped as part of a series of test observations with the Hawk-1 meant to examine how well the infrared camera works with its recently fitted GRAAL adaptive optics system.

According to ESO, the GRAAL module uses “four laser beams projected into the night sky, which act as artificial reference stars” and help reduce the fuzziness produced by the atmosphere, correcting “the effects of atmospheric turbulence.”

This allows Hawk-1 to penetrate the veil of dust shrouding RCW 38 and capture a clearer image of the star cluster.

“This instrument truly does have the eyes of a hawk,” states ESO, pointing out that the infrared wide-field imager is able “to collect breathtaking images covering a wide area of the sky, meaning that a whole nearby galaxy can fit in one single image.”