From the desert north

Chilean observatory reveals beauty and value of cosmic dust

Stunning photo released by the European Southern Observatory’s Atacama Pathfinder Experiment shows stars forming near Orion’s Belt.  

Wednesday, May 16, 2012 Category: Education - Technology
Clouds of cosmic dust thread through nebula Messier 78, near Orion’s belt. (Photo courtesy of the Eu Clouds of cosmic dust thread through nebula Messier 78, near Orion’s belt. (Photo courtesy of the European Southern Observatory)

A spectacular new photo taken at the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) in the mountainous peaks of Chile’s northern desert has revealed the scientific importance of dust - as well as its dazzling beauty.


Generally thought of as the surface grime that diminishes an object’s beauty, the aesthetics of dust are sure to be reconsidered with the release of the photo of nebula Messier 78, near the famous “belt” in the constellation of Orion.


Nebula Messier 78 is also known as NGC 2068, or “the reflection nebula,” because the dust particles of the nebula reflect starlight. In the image revealed by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which operates APEX, submillimeter-wavelength radiation shows clouds of cosmic dust threaded through the nebula like a string of illuminated pearls.


Aside from its breathtaking beauty, the image is also of high scientific importance - dense clouds of gas and dust are the birthplaces of new stars. This kind of research is helping astronomers shed light on that mysterious process, and the ESO facility in northern Chile is at its forefront.


Because it picks up longer wavelengths, the APEX telescope is capable of revealing the gentle glow of dense, frigid clumps of dust. In visible light, these veils of dust are dark and opaque, but using the APEX telescope, those clumps become stunning, illuminated clouds of light.


“The APEX observations are overlaid on the visible-light image in orange. Sensitive to longer wavelengths, they reveal the gentle glow of dense cold clumps of dust, some of which are even colder than -250ºC [-482ºF]. In visible light, this dust is dark and obscuring, which is why telescopes such as APEX are so important for studying the dusty clouds in which stars are born,” ESO officials said.


A massive young star that is estimated to be five times the mass of the sun can also be seen in another reflection nebula, called NGC 2071, at the top of the image.

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