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Scientists unwrap a stellar surprise

A new infrared image reveals tendrils of glowing gas and sparkling stars in a star-forming region that's obscured by dust when seen in visible light. It's the kind of before-and-after image that makes even astronomers gasp in awe.

"When I first saw this image. I just said, 'Wow!'" Jim Emerson. an astronomer at Queen Mary, University of London, said in an image advisory released today. "I was amazed to see all the dust streamers so clearly around the Monoceros R2 cluster, as well as the jets from highly embedded young stellar objects."

Emerson heads the consortium in charge of the VISTA survey telescope, operated by the European Southern Observatory at its facility in Chile. The telescope's 4.1-meter-wide (13.5-foot-wide) mirror is well-suited for capturing high-resolution images of large areas of the sky. The ESO says it's the world's largest telescope dedicated to surveys. (VISTA stands for Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy.)

Infrared-sensitive telescopes are able to cut through layers of dust to see the details within. And there are a lot of details in the Monoceros R2 star-forming region, which is 2,700 light-years away in the southern constellation Monoceros (the Unicorn). The region's hot young stars and outflows of gas stand out much more clearly in the VISTA picture than they do in visible-light imagery. To see the difference, click on this video clip from the ESO:

The ESO says observations in infrared wavelengths will be key to understanding phases of stellar evolution that are hidden from visible-light telescopes. In the months and years ahead, VISTA will map the entire southern sky systematically, gathering about 300 gigabytes of data per night. Within a decade or so, the ESO will put an even bigger telescope on the case: the European Extremely Large Telescope, which will boast a mirror more than 10 times as wide as VISTA's.

More about big telescopes:

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