This amazing image might look like something plucked straight from science fiction, but it’s very much real – showing a phenomenon known as a dark nebula.
Snapped by the Very Large Telescope and the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope, both in Chile, the image shows the Lupus 3 star-forming region, in the constellation of Scorpius.
Here, 600 light-years from Earth, resides a dark nebula – dense clouds that appear to resemble smoke. Unlike regular nebulae, dark nebulae are made of cold, dense particles, so they absorb light as it passes through rather than reflect it. As such, they are also called absorption nebulae.
We’ve seen other dark nebulae before, like the Coalsack Nebula and the Great Rift – which can even be seen by the naked eye against the Milky Way. Lupus 3 is particularly interesting, though, for two stars inside the nebula, seen in the center of the image.
These stars are shining not as a result of nuclear fusion, but instead by the crushing force of gravity being converted into heat inside their cores. This is because they're so young, and the nuclear fusion process hasn't yet begun.
“Early in their lives, the radiation they emitted was largely blocked by the thick veil of their host nebula, visible only to telescopes at infrared and radio wavelengths,” the European Southern Observatory (ESO) explained.
“But as they grew hotter and brighter, their intense radiation and strong stellar winds swept the surrounding areas clear of gas and dust, allowing them to emerge gloriously from their gloomy nursery to shine brightly.”
Lupus 3 is an active star formation region, so there are other protostars (the stage before a star begins nuclear fusion) and young stars here. These stars are born when clumps of the nebula contract due to gravity, becoming hot and pressurized and leading to the birth of a protostar as the cloud collapses.
We think our Sun may have formed in a similar star formation region about 4 billion years ago, so understanding regions like Lupus 3 can tell us more about our own beginnings. Not least, though, it also gives us a rare look at a fascinating region of space.