This new image from the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile shows a spectacular red cloud of glowing hydrogen gas behind a collection of blue foreground stars. Within RCW 34, located in the southern constellation of Vela, a group of massive young stars hides in the brightest region of the cloud. These stars have a dramatic effect on the nebula. Gas exposed to strong ultraviolet radiation — as occurs in the heart of this nebula — becomes ionized, meaning that the electrons have escaped the hydrogen atoms.
Hydrogen is treasured by cosmic photographers because it glows brightly in the characteristic red color that distinguishes many nebulae and allows them to create beautiful images with bizarre shapes. It is also the raw material of dramatic phenomena such as champagne flow. But ionized hydrogen also has an important astronomical role — it is an indicator of star-forming regions. Stars are born from collapsing gas clouds and therefore abundant in regions with copious amounts of gas, like RCW 34. This makes the nebula particularly interesting to astronomers studying stellar birth and evolution.
Vast amounts of dust within the nebula block the view of the inner workings of the stellar nursery deeply embedded in these clouds. RCW 34 is characterized by extremely high extinction, meaning that almost all of the visible light from this region is absorbed before it reaches Earth. Despite hiding away from direct view, astronomers can use infrared telescopes to peer through the dust and study the nest of embedded stars.
Looking behind the red color reveals that there is a lot of young stars in this region with masses only a fraction of that of the Sun. These seem to clump around older, more massive stars at the center, while only a few are distributed in the outskirts. This distribution has led astronomers to believe that there have been different episodes of star formation within the cloud. Three gigantic stars formed in the first event that then triggered the formation of the less massive stars in their vicinity.
This image uses data from the FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph instrument attached to the VLT, which were acquired as part of the ESO Cosmic Gems program.