Sometimes at CNET Science we go deep into explaining the wonders of the cosmos:, , – and other times we just look at photos of distant galaxies and sit in stunned silence.
This is one of the end times.
On Friday, the European Southern Observatory posted new images of nearby galaxies captured by two ground-based telescopes in Chile, the “Very Large Telescope” and the Atacama Large Millimeter / submillimeter Array, and NASA’s Hubble Telescope ( ). The Observatory calls the images “cosmic fireworks”, but let’s stop and think about these fireworks for a few moments because they are much more than that.
Each of the tiny points of light is a young star. Thousands and thousands of them are in each of the images, along with ethereal regions of gas, gas that gives rise to more incipient furnaces, ready to burn for billions of years.
Far from being just pretty pictures, the observations are helping astronomers better understand how stars form and evolve. Generally, gas and dust accumulate and clump together due to gravity. This cosmic cloud sees atoms colliding with each other, colliding violently until fusion reactions start the star’s engine and its eon-spanning combustion begins. The ESO images provide a glimpse into these different stages in the life of stars.
“We can directly observe the gas that gives birth to stars, we see young stars themselves and we witness their evolution through various phases,” said Eric Emsellem, an astronomer at ESO in Germany, in a press release.
The astronomers focused on nearby galaxies and used the Very Large Telescope to image the gas and young stars. They then overlaid images from ALMA (which are good at capturing gas clouds) to create the impressive “fireworks” display. It could also help researchers unravel a few more mysteries about star birth.
While they have a good handle on the birthing process, getting a wide variety of images of these nearby galaxies allows them to ask more specific questions. For example, what kinds of places within a galaxy could we expect a star to form and why?
The catalog of photographed galaxies it is getting bigger and bigger, and we are only just beginning to understand how diverse these stellar nurseries are. This will be reinforced by new instruments, including NASA’s long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope, which will be able to image the universe in unprecedented detail. On the ground, ESO is planning to bring the Extremely Large Telescope into operation later in the decade.
So while the astronomers will be busy producing the images, we can only contemplate the fruits of their labor: the hardest part is choosing which galaxy you like best.