New Telescope Creates Huge, Jaw-Dropping Photo of Nearby Gas Cloud

The entire universe in blog form
Dec. 6 2012 1:02 PM

Careening Into the Carina Nebula

How’s your jaw today? Relaxed? Clenched? Well, either way, let it slam into the floor by feasting your eyes and brain on this stunning picture of the Carina Nebula, a nearby star-forming gas cloud:

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

The Carina Nebula imaged by the VLT Survey Telescope
The Carina Nebula. Click to ennebulenate.

Image credit: ESO. Acknowledgement: VPHAS+ Consortium/Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

Holy hot hydrogen gas! I had to shrink the image to fit the blog, but if you click it you’ll see the 1300 x 1400 pixel version. There's a 3700 x 4000 pixel one as well if you prefer your nebulae in moderation … and if you really want to punish your Internet provider, you can try to swallow down the ginormous 17383 x 18656 pixel image, which weighs in at a whopping 350 megabytes!

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And even then that isn’t truly full resolution. This picture was taken with the newly inaugurated VLT Survey Telescope, or VST, a 2.6-meter telescope in Chile. It’s equipped with a detector called OMEGACam, which is—get this—a 268 megapixel camera.

The camera is so big because it’s designed to survey the sky, taking pictures of large swaths of the heavens quickly and in fine detail. And it’ll be busy: It’s expected to generate about 30 terabytes of data per year. That’s 30 million megabytes of data.

The VST and OMEGACam have been operating for a few months to test them out and are now about to go into production run. I can’t think of a better target than the Carina Nebula for the first official photo. This sprawling gas cloud is about 7,500 light-years away, relatively close on a galactic scale. It’s a monster, well over 100 light-years across, and churning out vast numbers of stars.

Eta Carinae seen by Hubble Space Telescope.
The doomed star Eta Carinae, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Click to embiggen.

Image credit: NASA and J. Morse (University of Colorado)

Some of these stars are among the largest and most violent known. My favorite is Eta Carinae, which you can see in the above picture in the upper wedge-shaped region, just to the left of center. Eta Car is a star that almost defies human comprehension: a binary star where the more massive of the two is possibly more than 100 times the mass of the sun, at the very upper limit of how massive and luminous a star can be without tearing itself apart. In 1843 it suffered an epic paroxysm that launched two huge bubbles of gas into space, each as massive as the sun (seen inset here in a Hubble Space Telescope shot). The furious energy of the blast was second only to a supernova and briefly made Eta Car the second brightest star in the night sky, even at its distance of 75,000 trillion kilometers (45,000 trillion miles)! One day it'll truly blow its top, exploding as a supernova. Even at that distance, it may brighten so much it'll rival Venus in the night sky.

And that’s just one star of thousands the Carina Nebula is churning out. This gas cloud is so big and bright, I can easily imagine alien astronomers in distant galaxies noting it when they observe the Milky Way; it must be one of the outstanding features of our galaxy, even seen from millions of light-years away.

The VST+OMEGACam combination will be an incredibly powerful tool for mapping the sky. This image of Carina is just a taste of what’s to come as the telescope sweeps the night sky: We can expect to see nebulae, stars, galaxies, nearby asteroids, and more, all in amazing detail. And you can be sure I’ll post them here when they come out. These will be far more than just pretty pictures; they’ll be a treasure trove of science that will lead to a better understanding of the gorgeous universe in which we live.

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