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Ethereal Orion Nebula wows scientists with dazzling portrait

A new image of the Orion Nebula Cluster that reveals the inner workings of the fabulous formation has astronomers thrilled.

The Orion Nebula shines in this VLT Survey Telescope image.

ESO/G. Beccari

Just take a moment and look at this. The ghostly whorls and swirls of the Orion Nebula make it look like it's all one cohesive splash of beauty, but there's a lot going on under the surface. The new image from the European Southern Observatory's VLT Survey Telescope allowed a team of astronomers to measure the brightness and colors of the stars within the Orion Nebula Cluster. 

The image comes courtesy of the telescope's OmegaCAM, a wide-field optical camera. "Looking at the data for the first time was one of those 'Wow!' moments that happen only once or twice in an astronomer's lifetime," says ESO astronomer Giacomo Beccari. "The incredible quality of the OmegaCAM images revealed without any doubt that we were seeing three distinct populations of stars in the central parts of Orion." 

Astronomers refer to the Orion Nebula as a "stellar nursery" due to its areas of active star formation. The team looked at the stars' masses and ages. "It suggests that star formation might proceed in bursts, where each burst occurs on a much faster time-scale than previously thought," the ESO notes. 

While the scientists are considering the possibility of binary stars boosting the observed brightness levels, it seems more likely there are three different generations of stars within the cluster, all forming in under 3 million years. 

Beccari and team published a study on the findings in the August issue of Astronomy & Astrophysics, titled "A tale of three cities: OmegaCAM discovers multiple sequences in the color-magnitude diagram of the Orion Nebula Cluster."