Astronomers have pieced together more than a million images showing never-before-seen objects in space in an attempt to decipher how stars are born.
Using VISTA (Visible and Infrared Astronomical Survey Telescope), the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has captured a quick “space atlas” of five stellar nurseries – showing young stars forming, embedded in thick dust clouds.
The research was carried out to answer complex questions about star formation, which occurs when clouds of gas and dust collapse under their own gravity.
The exact details of how this happens remain a mystery — but it is hoped that these observations will provide a unique tool to gain a deeper understanding of the process.
Astronomer Stefan Meingast of the University of Vienna led the study, called VISIONS, which was published Thursday in the scientific journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
He and colleagues investigated five star-forming regions — relatively close in space to Earth — using the VISTA telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile.
Observations of Orion, Ophiuchus, Oxychia, Corona Australis, and Sirius yielded more than one million images over a five-year period, all within 1,500 light-years of each constellation.
The images were collated using VIRCAM, VISTA’s infrared camera, to reveal a vast cosmic landscape, including dark dust patches, glowing clouds, newborn stars and the distant background stars of the Milky Way.
Dr Meingast said: “In these images we can detect even the faintest light sources, such as stars with masses much smaller than our sun, revealing objects that have never been seen before.
“This will allow us to understand the processes that transform gas and dust into stars.”
João Alves, an astronomer at the University of Vienna, said the study will monitor baby stars over several years to measure their motion and discover how they leave their parent nebula.
But it’s no easy feat—observing a moving star from Earth is like seeing the width of a human hair from 10 kilometers away.
Alena Rottensteiner, co-author of the study and a doctoral student at the University of Vienna, said: “The dust obscures the view of these young stars, making them almost invisible to our eyes.
“Only at infrared wavelengths can we look deep into these clouds and study the stars that are forming.”
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The VISIONS project will keep astronomers busy for many years to come.
“The astronomical community here has enormous lasting value,” said study co-author Monika Petr-Gotzens, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany.
VISIONS will also form the basis for future observations with other telescopes, such as ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), currently under construction in Chile.
Dr Meingast concluded: “The ELT will allow us to zoom in to specific regions in unprecedented detail, allowing us to take a closer look at individual stars that are currently forming there.”