A telescope in Chile has captured the dramatic red hue of a nebula where bright new stars have set surrounding hydrogen gas glowing with their highly energetic radiation, astronomers report.
The image was captured using special filers fitted to an instrument at the La Silla Observatory, operated by the European Southern Observatory.
The filters allowed the hydrogen clouds in the Gum 41 nebula, too faint to be visible to the naked eye, to be recorded in all their scarlet glory, a hue often found in star-forming nebulae, the astronomers explained.
First identified in 1955 by Colin Gum, an astronomer in Australia, Gum 41 is around 7,300 light years from the Earth in the southern constellation Centaurus, home to a number of nebulae in which young stars are being formed.
Gum himself recorded 84 such nebulae before his untimely death in a skiing accident in 1960.
Gum 41, for all its immense size, is just a small portion of a larger cosmic structure, the Lambda Centauri Nebula, known colloquially to astronomers as the Running Chicken Nebula.
The cosmic portrait of the scarlet nebula was captured by a La Silla telescope with a seven-foot mirror that took a series of images through red, blue and green filters which were combined with another image taken with a custom filter which isolated the red glow of the energized hydrogen.
While the resulting image is dramatic, it is only the special photographic techniques that make it so, astronomers say; a human space traveler passing by the nebula might not even notice it because its enveloping cloud of hydrogen gas is be too thin to be perceived by the human eye.
That helps explain why an object as large as the Gum 41 nebula was not discovered until the middle of the twentieth century, they say.
La Silla, where the image was obtained, in one of three observatories in Chile operated by the European Southern Observatory, along with facilities at Chajnantor and Paranal.
One of ESO's instruments, the Very Large Telescope at Paranal, is acknowledged as one of the most advanced instruments in the world for conducted visible-light surveys of the skies.
The ESO is also designing the 128-foot European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, or E-ELT, that when completed will by the "the world's biggest eye on the sky," it said in a release.