The new infrared view of the nebula is radically different from those seen with optical telescopes
Far from Earth in the constellation of Scorpius lies the Lobster Nebula. Here, countless hot young suns are forged and glow blue, white and orange through a thin veil of interstellar dust. Great arms of gas that shine a pale shade of purple stretch out from the heart of the nebula.
From a wide and distant view of the Milky Way, this animation zooms in on the Lobster Nebula, and ends with the latest image snapped by the European Southern Observatory’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (Vista) at the Paranal Observatory in Chile.
The view is radically different from those seen with optical telescopes, because the instrument observes the cosmos in infrared, which penetrates much of the dust that cloaks the nebula. Vista, the largest and most powerful survey telescope ever built, is scanning the Milky Way as part of a major effort to map our galaxy’s structure and learn how it formed.
Known to astronomers as NGC 6357, the Lobster Nebula lies 8,000 light years from Earth. The nebula is home to the Pismis-24 star cluster, which contains some of the most massive stars in the Milky Way. The masses of the stars in the cluster are all less that 100 times that of our sun, but cosmic heavyweights nonetheless.
Infrared observatories can spot features that visible-light images fail to show, for example if an object is too cold, obscured by thick dust, or is very distant – meaning that its light has been stretched towards the red end of the spectrum by the expansion of the universe.
In the infrared, by contrast, large plumes of reddish material are much reduced and twisting arms of pale purple gas become visible.
See the full image, via the European Southern Observatory, below.