Very Massive Telescope captures cosmic fireworks

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This image, captured with the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), shows the nearby galaxy NGC 4254. NGC 4254 is a large-designed spiral galaxy that is about 45 million light years from the Earth removed in the constellation Koma Berenikes. ESO / PHANGS

How are stars formed? We understand the fundamentals of this process: that gas and dust clump together and create a force of attraction that brings more matter together until there is finally enough mass to crush the matter under high pressure and temperature and give birth to a new star. But what triggers this process is not fully understood, and recent images with data from the Very Large Telescope (VLT) may shed light on this question.

A team of international astronomers used the VLT’s Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument, along with data from the Atacama Large Millimeter / submillimeter Array (ALMA), to create five images of nearby galaxies that look like a cosmic fireworks shine angular resolution in the Near GalaxieS (PHANGS) project.

This image, taken by the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), shows the nearby galaxy NGC 4303. This image, captured by the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), shows the nearby galaxy NGC 4303. ESO / PHANGS

Not only are these images visually stunning, but they can also help researchers understand how stars are formed in these galaxies. “There are many secrets that we want to unravel,” says Kathryn Kreckel from Heidelberg University and member of the PHANGS team. “Are stars born more often in certain regions of their host galaxies – and if so, why? And how does their development after the birth of stars influence the formation of new generations of stars? “

This image, taken with the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), shows the nearby galaxy NGC 3627.This image, taken with the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), shows the nearby galaxy NGC 3627. ESO / PHANGS

In addition to data from the VLT and ALMA data, which are ground-based telescopes, the team also includes data from the Hubble space telescope in its project. The combination of space-based and ground-based telescopes has enabled researchers to see in three different wavelengths: visible light, near infrared, and radio.

“Their combination enables us to examine the different stages of star birth – from the formation of the star nurseries to the beginning of star formation itself to the final destruction of the nurseries by the newborn stars – in more detail than is possible with individual observations,” says PHANGS team member Francesco Belfiore from INAF-Arcetri in Florence, Italy. “PHANGS is the first time we can put together such a complete view by taking pictures that are sharp enough to see the individual clouds, stars and nebulae that make up stars.”

The galaxy NGC 1087. Image taken with the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT).This image, taken with the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), shows the nearby galaxy NGC 1087. ESO / PHANGS

But as sharp as the data from PHANGS are, the researchers want even higher-resolution images in order to see the interior of star formation clouds more clearly. In the future, the project will use data from upcoming telescopes such as the James Webb Space Telescope or the Extremely Large Telescope to obtain even more detailed data.

This image, taken with the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), shows the nearby galaxy NGC 1300.This image, taken with the Multi-Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), shows the nearby galaxy NGC 1300. ESO / PHANGS

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