Psychedelic image of star nursery from Chilean observatory

The image captured from Pachón hill shows a cloud of gas and dust surrounding the birth of young small- and intermediate-sized stars.


One of the favorite images for stargazers in both hemispheres is the Laguna Nebula (Messier 8 or M8), considered one of the most impressive examples of the Milky Way’s star incubators. Its diffuse glow being visible even from small telescopes or binoculars, the Laguna Nebula reveals the type of chaotic atmosphere generated by the birth of stars.

Using the Gemini Sur Observatory, located on Pachón hill in the Chilean Andes, Argentine astronomers Julia Aris (Universidad de La Serena) and Rodolfo Barbá (Universidad de la Serena and Icate-Conicet) have captured a new image of this stellar nursery that could be described as “psychedelic.”

In fact, given that M8 is approximately 5,000 light years away, the Technicolor scene on display is a sort of retrospective, as the photons had to travel as many years before reaching the giant, eight-meter mirror of the Gemini, one of the scientific complexes that helped Chile transform itself into a hub for astronomical technology and development.

Astronomers sometimes refer to the M8 region the “Southern Cliff,” due to its resemblance to a steep cliff. Beyond this portion, the light of young stars in the back shines through the nebula in the upper left of the image.

Arias and Barbá will use the data gathered from the image to explore the evolving relationship between the recently-born stars and the objects known as Herbi-Haro (H-H), which form when young stars expel large quantities of fast-moving gas as they grow. This gas collides with the nebula that surrounds it, producing brilliant lights as the gas is heated by friction with the surrounding gas of the nebulous, which is excited by high energy radiation from nearby stars.

The researchers found a dozen H-H objects in the image ranging in size from a few thousand astronomical units (about a trillion kilometers) to 1.4 parsecs (4.5 light years) – a little larger than the distance between the sun and its nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri.

The photograph, which was composed of images shot through two different short-band optical filters, one sensitive to hydrogen (red) and ionized sulfur (green), the other transmitting infra-red light (blue), shows the leak of a cloud of dust and gas from around the nursery of small- and medium-sized stars. Most of the newborn stars are contained within the tips of dense dust clouds, which appear here as bright-edged pillars.

The Laguna Nebula is located in the southern part of the Milky Way in the direction of the constellation Sagittarius.  Seen through large telescopes, it has the appearance of a faintly glowing, pink ghost. In this image, the use of selective filters to reveal characteristics of the gas clouds, and the assignation of red, green and blue to represent the three selected data sets, resulted in thousands of different colors and intensities. Thus, the colors in the photo are not representative of the the color of light. For example, the blue stars in this image actually emit the majority of their light in the infra-red end of the spectrum, beyond that which can be captured by the human eye.

Text and photos courtesy of the Gemini Observatory

This post is also available in Spanish