These comparison cutouts show how differently parts of this rich star-forming complex in Orion appear at different wavelengths. In the infrared images from the VISTA telescope (lower row) the dust is much more transparent than in the visible light pictures from the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope (upper row). Credit: ESO/Igor Chekalin
If you happened to be out stargazing and swung your telescope towards Orion, it might be possible for you to take a peek at the Messier 78 nebula. Through the eyepiece, you would see a fuzzy, glowing blue blob.
It’s a lovely blue blob, to be sure. But the researchers at the European Southern Observatory’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) figured out how to kick it up a notch.
From their rarified position in the Atacama desert in Chile, the researchers were able to use VISTA to image the nebula in near-infrared light. Infrared isn’t visible to humans, but it can pass through obstructions like cosmic dust much more easily than the more human-friendly spectrum of visible light.
Before: A visible light image of Messier 78. Credit: ESO/Igor Chekalin
In this case, the blue blob look that we see was caused by clouds of cosmic dust obscuring the nebula, and dispersing the light from large stars at the heart of the nebula.
In VISTA’s new near-infrared picture, those stars are visible, their bright blue-white color unobscured by dust. Stars at the start of the formation process are visible too as reddish dots embedded in the thick bands of dust and material that surround the nebula.
After: An image created with infrared light instead of visible light alone allows researchers to see new stars in the heart of Messier 78. Credit: ESO
The new image offers not only a sharper update to the more impressionist-like visible light images, it also offers us a chance to see some stars in their infancy. Those small red dots will eventually become larger stars in their own right, twinkling in the night sky.
But don’t hold your breath waiting for these stars to grow up. We’d have to wait tens of millions of years to see them reach their full potential.