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Starts With A Bang

Three Spectacular Nebulae Caught Together, Revealing Stunning Details About Star Birth

Two of the sky’s more famous residents share the stage with a lesser-known neighbour in this enormous three gigapixel image from ESO’s VLT Survey Telescope (VST). On the right lies the faint, glowing cloud of gas called Sharpless 2–54, the iconic Eagle Nebula (Messier 16) is in the centre, and the Omega Nebula (Messier 17) to the left. Image credit: ESO / VST Survey.

The Omega Nebula, the Eagle Nebula and Sharpless 2–54 all line up in space. Here’s a never-before-seen view of them all together!


“It shows you exactly how a star is formed; nothing else can be so pretty! A cluster of vapor, the cream of the milky way, a sort of celestial cheese, churned into light.” –Benjamin Disraeli

Most the night sky’s stars are ancient: legacies of star-forming nebulae and young clusters that dissociated long ago.

The All-sky VST (VLT Survey Telescope) survey will capture more than 80% of the entire sky, with only the northernmost latitudes — within the arctic circle — being omitted due to location. Image credit: ESO.

But in the galactic plane, best viewed from terrestrial, equatorial regions, new star-forming regions continue to take shape.

The VLT Survey Telescope (VST) at Cerro Paranal. The VST is a state-of-the-art 2.6-metre telescope equipped with OmegaCAM, a monster 268 megapixel CCD camera with a field of view four times the area of the full Moon. It is presently surveying the entire night sky, as best as it can observe, in visible light. Image credit: ESO/G. Lombardi (glphoto.it).

The ESO’s VLT Survey Telescope (VST), equipped with a wide-field view and a 268 megapixel camera, just released an incredible panorama.

Separated by less than five degrees on the sky, the Omega Nebula, the Eagle Nebula, and Sharpless 2–54 tell an incredible story.

Even outside of the three major nebulae showcased in the new ESO release image, the ionized hydrogen and young, blue stars that highlight the large molecular cloud complex in the galactic plane exhibit clear signatures. Image credit: ESO / VST survey.

All located around 6,000–7,000 light years away, they represent different stages of new star formation.

The Omega nebula, known also as Messier 17, is an intense and active region of star formation, viewed edge-on, which explains its dusty and beam-like appearance. Image credit: ESO / VST survey.

In the Omega Nebula, a giant cloud of interstellar matter saw a small part collapse, giving rise to nearly 1,000 new stars.

The heart of the Omega nebula is highlighted by ionized gas, brilliant new, blue, massive stars, and foreground dust lanes that block the background light. Image credit: ESO / VST survey.

The gas-and-dust tells a similar story to the Orion Nebula, only more distant and viewed edge-on.

The Eagle nebula, Messier 16, is much, much larger and more massive than the Omega nebula, with over 8,000 stars inside. It is still forming new ones in the nebulous regions in the interior. Image credit: ESO / VST survey.

The Eagle Nebula is much more massive, with ten times as many stars and regions where new stars are still forming.

The pillars of creation (left) and the fairy (upside down, top right) are two of the iconic features that Hubble has imaged. Within, new stars still form as the gas and dust evaporates. Image credit: ESO / VST survey.

The Pillars of Creation and the Fairy/Spire are clearly visible by VST.

The region Sharpless 2–54, located in-line with M16 and M17, is not presently forming new stars, but exhibits evidence that it formed them in the recent past and will form them again in the near future. Image credit: ESO / VST survey.

Finally, Sharpless 2–54 is a partially ionized molecular cloud with no active star formation, yet.

One of the many clusters in this region is highlighted by massive, short-lived, bright blue stars. Within only about 10 million years, the majority of the most massive ones will explode in a Type II supernova. Image credit: ESO / VST survey.

However, young star clusters abound, indicating multiple waves of recent activity.

The same three-dimensional molecular cloud is responsible for all three of these nebulae, and much more. The cloud extends for thousands of light years in all directions in space. Image credit: ESO / VST survey.

The same enormous molecular cloud complex contains them all.


Mostly Mute Monday tells a cosmic story of a phenomenon, object or location in the Universe in images, visuals and no more than 200 words. Check out an interactive, zoomable panorama, courtesy of ESO, here!

Ethan Siegel is the author of Beyond the Galaxy and Treknology. You can pre-order his third book, currently in development: the Encyclopaedia Cosmologica.

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