The central portion of star cluster RCW 38.

Behold the Haunting Beauty of a Distant Star Cluster

The central portion of star cluster RCW 38.
Image: ESO/K. Muzic

A new image of star cluster RCW 38, an area strewn with young, hot, massive stars, is providing an unprecedented glimpse into a tumultuous region of space located 5,500 light-years from Earth.

This exquisite view of RCW 38 was made possible by the HAWK-I infrared imager mounted on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. This instrument can pierce through dusty star clusters, revealing details like individual stars, glowing gases, and long streams of cosmic dust.

Star cluster RCW 38 is in the constellation of Vela, and it’s packed with young stars and protostars still in the process of forming. Many of the stars within this cluster abide by the credo of living fast and dying young; the largest of them will eventually explode as supernovae.

“The central area of RCW 38 is visible here as a bright, blue-tinted region, an area inhabited by numerous very young stars and protostars that are still in the process of forming,” writes the ESO in a press release. “The intense radiation pouring out from these newly born stars causes the surrounding gas to glow brightly. This is in stark contrast to the streams of cooler cosmic dust winding through the region, which glow gently in dark shades of red and orange.”

An older image of star cluster RCW seen through optical wavelengths.
An older image of star cluster RCW seen through optical wavelengths.
Image: ESO

This new image of RCW 38 scarcely compares to previous photos taken of the star cluster (see above image for an example). When seen in optical wavelengths, its dust and gas effectively block our view of the area.

Pretty amazing what we can get from ground-based telescopes. This new image is wonderful, but imagine the sights we’ll see once the space-based James Webb Space Telescope is (finally) up and running.


George is a senior staff reporter at Gizmodo.

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