Ground control to major zoom: Space in 2B glorious pixels

The Cat's Paw Nebula and Lobster Nebula are positively incandescent in one of the largest images ever released by the European Southern Observatory.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
2 min read
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Have you had some time today to have a think about space yet? Well, even if you have, the European Southern Observatory has a special treat for everyone: one of the largest images it has ever released, thanks to the the Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope's 256-megapixel OmegaCam.

Coming in at 49,511x39,136 pixels (just under two billion pixels), the image shows a region of space in the southern constellation of Scorpius (the Scorpion) in breathtaking detail. It's focused on two gorgeous nebulas: the Cat's Paw (NGC 6334) in the top right, and the Lobster (NGC 6357) in the bottom left.

The two nebulas are very similar. They are both emission nebulas, nebulas that emit light from within. The Cat's Paw and the Lobster are both stellar nurseries, where hot and bright baby stars emit intense ultraviolet light. This light ionises the hydrogen clouds that makes up the nebula, causing it to glow. These clouds of dust and gas are so thick that the hearts of the nebulas are hard to observe -- but infrared instruments have helped identify what's happening inside them.

There are thousands of baby stars in the Cat's Paw, which is a very active nursery. The Lobster is also home to Pismis 24, which was thought to be the brightest star in the Milky Way -- until analysis of Hubble Space Telescope images revealed that it's a cluster of at least three stars. You can see Pismis 24 shining brightly in the heart of the Lobster.

The OmegaCam also picked up several large swathes of darkness through the middle of the image. These are clouds of dust and gas known as dark nebulas, since they do not emit or reflect light, but block it. The hearts of these nebulas are filled with sub-micrometre dust particles coated with frozen carbon monoxide and nitrogen. These dust particles scatter and absorb all light on visible wavelengths.

The internal temperature of these nebulas is also very low, which will eventually allow the dense matter inside the nebula to collapse under the nebula's own gravity, forming a rotating disc -- a very young baby star, known as a protostar.

If you want to explore a zoomable version of this image -- and we heartily recommend it -- you can do so on the European Southern Observatory's website.

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