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Hidden Stars Are Revealed in Images of a Dusty Nebula

The star formation region, Messier 78, in the constellation of Orion (The Hunter), was taken with the VISTA infrared survey telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile and released on Oct. 5, 2016.
ESO The star formation region, Messier 78, in the constellation of Orion (The Hunter), was taken with the VISTA infrared survey telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile and released on Oct. 5, 2016.

By the VISTA telescope in Chile

A new image of Messier 78, a nebula located about 1,600 light-years away in the constellation of Orion, reveals stars and other features that in previous observations, had been hidden by cosmic dust.

Messier 78 is what’s known as a reflection nebula. In visible light, images of the formation, like those taken by the ESO’s Wide Field Imager, look like a swirling, luminous, blue cloud, streaked with dark ribbons. Light from the stars at its center reflect off the dust and scatter the light. The new image from ESO’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA), sees near-infrared light, which passes through the dust, allowing the stars within to shine through. (See comparison images below.) “The telescope”, writes ESO, “is like a giant dustbuster that lets astronomers probe deep into the heart of the stellar environment.”

This comparison gif shows how differently parts of a rich star-forming complex in Orion appear at different wavelengths.
Igor Chekalin—ESO; Gif by Marisa Gertz for TIMEThis comparison gif shows how differently parts of a rich star-forming complex in Orion appear at different wavelengths.
In the infrared images from the VISTA telescope the dust is much more transparent than in the visible light pictures from the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope.
Igor Chekalin—ESO; Gif by Marisa Gertz for TIMEIn the infrared images from the VISTA telescope the dust is much more transparent than in the visible light pictures from the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope.

VISTA is able to see the two blue supergiant stars at the center of the nebula as well as many fledgling stars surrounding them, glowing red and yellow. While bright, they will not become true stars for “several tens of millions of years”, says ESO, once they become “hot enough for nuclear fusion reactions to have commenced in their cores.”

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