ESO marks 60th anniversary with release of dramatic star factory image

Star factory This striking new view of the Cone Nebula, taken by the Very Large Telescope, was released on the occasion of ESO’s 60th anniversary. (Courtesy: ESO)

This year sees the 60th anniversary of the formation of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), a ground-based astronomy facility with telescopes located in the Atacama Desert in Chile. To mark this milestone, ESO has released a spectacular new image of the Cone Nebula, captured earlier this year by its Very Large Telescope (VLT) and selected by ESO staff.

The image shows the Cone Nebula, part of the larger star-forming region of space designated as NGC 2264. Discovered by William Herschel in 1785, the horn-shaped Cone Nebula is seven light-years in length and located in the constellation Monoceros (the unicorn).

The appearance of the Cone Nebula is a prime example of the pillar-like shapes that develop in giant clouds of cold molecular gas and dust, and which are believed to act as incubators for developing stars.

Such pillars arise when massive, newly formed bright blue stars give off stellar winds and intense ultraviolet radiation that blow material away from their vicinity. As this gas and dust is pushed away from the young stars, it gets compressed into dense, dark and tall pillar-like shapes.

The image, which was captured with the FORS2 (focal reducer and low dispersion spectrograph 2) optical instrument on the VLT, shows hydrogen gas represented in blue and sulphur gas in red. The filters used make the bright blue stars, which indicate recent star formation, appear almost golden.

As the Cone Nebula is relatively close to Earth, less than 2500 light-years away, it has been studied extensively. ESO notes, however, that this new view is more dramatic than any obtained previously, showcasing the nebula’s dark and impenetrable cloudy appearance.

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