HomeAstronomy & SpaceAstronomyESO images a wondrous star factory to mark 60 years of collaboration

ESO images a wondrous star factory to mark 60 years of collaboration

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The Cone Nebula is located about 2500 light-years away in the star-forming region of space NGC 2264. Its columnar shape is a perfect example of the shapes that can form in the massive clouds of cold molecular gas and dust. These are known to form new stars. This stunning new image of the nebula was taken with the FOcal Reducer instrument and the Low Dispersion Spectrograph 2 (FORS2) at ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT). It was released to commemorate ESO’s 60th anniversary.

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has been assisting scientists all over the world in unravelling the mysteries of the universe for the past 60 years. We’re marking the occasion with a stunning new image of the stellar factory, the Cone Nebula. It was captured with ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT).

Five countries signed a convention establishing ESO on October 5, 1962. Six decades later, ESO is bringing together scientists and engineers from around the world to develop and operate ground-based observatories in Chile. It will enable breakthrough astronomical discoveries, with the support of 16 Member States and strategic partners.

To commemorate ESO’s 60th anniversary, we’re sharing this exciting new image of the Cone Nebula. It was captured earlier this year by one of ESO’s telescopes and curated by ESO staff. This is part of the ESO 60th Anniversary Campaign. It will take place at the end of 2022 on social media using the hashtag #ESO60years as well as at local events in ESO Member States and other countries.

The Cone Nebula is centred in this new image. It is part of the larger star-forming region NGC 2264 and was discovered in the late 18th century by astronomer William Herschel. This horn-shaped nebula is located in the constellation Monoceros, which is a surprisingly appropriate name.

The Cone Nebula is a well-studied object that is less than 2500 light-years away and relatively close to Earth. However, this view is more dramatic than any previously obtained. Because it shows the nebula’s dark and impenetrable cloudy appearance, which makes it look like a mythological creature.

The Cone Nebula is a prime example of the columnar shapes. It forms in giant clouds of cold molecular gas and dust that are known to give birth to new stars. When newly formed, bright blue stars emit stellar winds and intense ultraviolet radiation, they sweep material away from their surroundings. It results in this type of pillar. The gas and dust further away from the young stars are compressed into dense columnar shapes. And the material is repelled. This process contributes to the formation of the dark Cone Nebula. It points away from the bright stars in NGC 2264.

The hydrogen gas is shown in blue. And the sulphur gas is shown in red in this image. The image was taken with the FOcal Reducer and Low Dispersion Spectrograph 2 (FORS2) at ESO’s VLT in Chile. Using these filters produces bright blue stars that are almost golden. It indicates recent star formation, in contrast to the dark, sparkler-like cone.

This is just one of many breathtaking and impressive observations made by ESO telescopes over the last 60 years. While this image was taken for educational purposes, the vast majority of ESO’s telescope time is devoted to scientific observations. It has allowed us to take the first image of an exoplanet, study the black hole at the centre of our home galaxy, and discover evidence that the expansion of our universe is accelerating.

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