Tail of the sky serpent has been captured in wonderful new telescope image

New year, new awe-inspiring image of the cosmos.

For example, the infrared James Webb Space Telescope started taking full colour images in July last year, and this year is likely to be even more exciting. The telescope will be able to examine every phase of cosmic history, from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang to the formation of galaxies, stars and planets to the evolution of our own solar system.

Back home in Australia, 2023 could also be a great year for the ASKAP radio telescope to show us a whole different band of astronomy. Last year, the team at Pawsey Supercomputing Research Centre which works with ASKAP has unveiled a new supercomputer called Setonix.

This new system was able to produce a highly detailed image of a supernova remnant immediately after the computing system’s first stage was made available to researchers.

And the image above – taken by the European Southern Observatory’s VISTA telescope at Paranal Observatory in Chile and released earlier this week – is particularly pretty.

The infrared image strips away the dust normally seen in the Sh2-54 nebula, revealing a cornucopia of new stars.

You can see this very well when compared to a visible light image of the Sh2-54 nebula taken by the VLT Survey Telescope, which is also at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. Whilst visible light is easily absorbed by clouds of dust in nebulae, infrared light can pass through the thick layers of dust almost unimpeded.

A visible-light image of the Sh2-54 nebula, captured by the VLT Survey Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. Credit: ESO

The Sh2-54 nebula itself is part of an open cluster of stars called NGC 6604. Located around 4,580 light years from us, it’s an area of heavy star formation.

The nebula and open cluster is in the constellation ‘Serpens Cauda’, meaning snake tail in Greek. But although the larger constellation might look a bit like a snake tail (if you really really squint) unfortunately the nebula itself looks more like a mass of stars than a serpent.  

The image of the Sh2-54 nebula was taken as part of the VVVX survey — the VISTA Variables in the Via Láctea eXtended survey.

The VVVX survey has been scanning the mid-plane of the Milky Way since 2010. This ‘galactic bulge’ in the Milky Way is obscured by dust, which makes the infrared telescope handy for peering behind the curtain. This has been providing scientists with more data to understand the evolution of stars.

Hopefully this image is just the start of many more fabulous shots of the Universe for 2023.

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