A photograph from a 25-foot telescope has captured the majesty of a molecular cloud in the Carina Nebula, 7,500 light years from Earth.
Molecular clouds are birthplaces for new stars, with our own sun thought to have formed within one.
The image was captured by the Gemini South telescope in Chile – and scientists hope it shows off what Nasa’s upcoming James Webb space telescope will be able to do.
The James Webb space telescope is the successor to Hubble, and will launch next year.
Researchers hope the Webb space telescope will help us understand more about how stars are born.
The research was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.
Unlike traditional infrared cameras, Gemini South’s imager uses “a mirror that changes its shape to correct for shimmering in our atmosphere”, said researcher Patrick Hartigan of Rice University.
Hartigan says that means Gemini South can offer photos with roughly 10 times the resolution of images from ground-based telescopes – and similar to what will be possible with the James Webb telescope.
The images show a cloud of dust and gas in the Carina Nebula known as the Western Wall.
The cloud’s surface is slowly evaporating in the intense glow of radiation from a nearby cluster of massive young stars.
“The results are stunning,” Hartigan said.
“We see a wealth of detail never observed before along the edge of the cloud, including a long series of parallel ridges that may be produced by a magnetic field, a remarkable almost perfectly smooth sine wave and fragments at the top that appear to be in the process of being sheared off the cloud by a strong wind.”
Hartigan said: “The new images of it are so much sharper than anything we’ve previously seen.
“They provide the clearest view to date of how massive young stars affect their surroundings and influence star and planet formation.”
The radiation causes hydrogen to glow with near-infrared light, and specially designed filters allowed the astronomers to capture separate images of hydrogen at the cloud’s surface and hydrogen that was evaporating.
Because near-infrared light penetrates the outer layers of dust in molecular clouds, cameras like the Gemini South Adaptive Optics Imager can see what lies beneath.
One of the Hubble Space Telescope’s most iconic photographs, 1995’s Pillars Of Creation, captured the grandeur of dust columns in a star-forming region. But the beauty of the image belied Hubble’s weakness when it came to studying molecular clouds.
“Hubble operates at optical and ultraviolet wavelengths that are blocked by dust in star-forming regions like these,” Hartigan said.
“Many near-infrared wavelengths will only be visible from a space telescope like the Webb. But for near-infrared wavelengths that reach Earth’s surface, adaptive optics can produce images as sharp as those acquired from space.
“Structures like the Western Wall are going to be rich hunting grounds for both Webb and ground-based telescopes with adaptive optics like Gemini South. Each will pierce the dust shrouds and reveal new information about the birth of stars.”
Watch: Stellar winds finally reveal how nebulae are shaped