The Very Large Telescope of the European South Observatory and ALMA were used to create this image of the “grand-design spiral galaxy” NGC 4254. to record
ESO / ALMA (ESO / NAOJ / NRAO) / PHANGS
Sometimes at CNET Science we go really deep into explaining the wonders of the cosmos –, , – and sometimes we just stare at photos of distant galaxies and sit in stunned silence.
This is one of the last times.
On Friday, the European Southern Observatory released new images of nearby galaxies captured by two Earth-based telescopes in Chile, the “Very Large Telescope” and the Atacama Large Millimeter / Submillimeter Array, and NASA’s Hubble Telescope (). The observatory calls the images “cosmic fireworks,” but let’s stop and think about these fireworks because they are much more than that.
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Each of the tiny spots of light is a young star. Thousands upon thousands of them can be seen in each of the images, along with ethereal regions of gas – gas that leads to still young stoves that burn for billions of years.
Far from being just pretty pictures, the observations help astronomers get a better understanding of how stars are formed and evolved. Typically, gas and dust collect and clump together due to gravity. This cosmic cloud sees atoms crashing together and colliding violently until fusion reactions crank the star’s engine and it begins to burn across eons. The ESO images give an insight into these different stages of star life.
“We can directly observe the gas from which stars are formed, we see the young stars themselves and we witness their development through various phases,” said Eric Emselem, astronomer at ESO in Germany, in a press release.
Five different galaxies observed with the MUSE instrument on the Very Large Telescope.
ESO / PHANGS
The astronomers focused on nearby galaxies and used the Very Large Telescope to image the gas and young stars. Then they overlaid ALMA images (which are good for capturing gas clouds) to create the breathtaking “fireworks”. It could also help researchers unravel a few more mysteries of the star birth.
Although they have a good grip on the birth process, more specific questions can be asked by taking a variety of images of these nearby galaxies. For example, what kinds of locations within a galaxy might we expect a star to form – and why?
The catalog of galaxies pictured is growing and we are only just beginning to understand how diverse these star nurseries are. This is being improved by new instruments, including NASA’s heavily delayed James Webb Space Telescope, which will be able to map the universe in unprecedented detail. On site, ESO plans to bring the Extremely Large Telescope online over the course of the decade.
So while the astronomers are busy producing the images, we can only marvel at the fruits of their labor – the hardest part is choosing the galaxy you like best.