The European Southern Observatory has recently released a stunning photograph in the southern constellation of Ara, or “The Altar”. This area has long been known to contain a vast amount of different celestial objects, but until now, no single image has been produced of the region.
Using their aptly named Very Large Telescope, the ESO compiled this single image from over five hundred individual pictures taken over a fifty-six hour period. The picture was achieved using four different color filters by the telescope.
So what’s in a picture? In this case, quite a bit. In the center are two very bright stars. These two fellows private the majority of the light that allows the rest of the picture to show up in such splendor. Surrounding these are a hodgepodge of infant stars in formation, clustered around each other.
That’s what makes this image unique. Typically, newly formed stars tend to fade away from each other after a few million years. To capture so many in such an early stage is quite rare.
NGC 6193, which is the heart of the image, is where all this new action is happening. Many of the stars you see are young blue-white stars, which are both more massive and hotter than our current Sun.
What this gives is an image of star formation in various stages. The ultraviolet radiation and stellar wind radiating from the larger, older stars promotes the growth of younger stars. As fragments of clouds and dust collapse from the heat of the larger stars, those bits will hopefully grow denser and bring forth new stars.
This process is not all fun and games. The above mentioned winds also have a tendency to erode the very gasses that make up star formation. Because of this, many of these areas tend to last for only a few million years. In addition, building stars tends to be a profoundly inefficient process – about 10% of the dust and gas you see will be used, the rest will be blown off into other parts of space.
Nevertheless, the above image gives astronomers a first rate look into early processes, and provides those of us less well versed in the technical details with yet another glimpse into that vast unknown surrounding our little planet.