The birth and death of stars, captured in a dramatic intergalactic photo

eso1348a, crop, showing NGC 2035 (Dragon's Head nebular) and supernova remnants

You are looking at a stunning photo of the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the closest dwarf galaxies to the Milky Way. Captured by the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (points for creativity), the photo shows an active region of stellar birth on the right, and the remnants of explosive stellar death — supernova — on the left. The VLT is the world’s largest visible light telescope, so this photo is just about as good as it gets. A larger version is shown below, if you’re looking for a new desktop wallpaper. There’s also a very cool video embedded below that shows you exactly where in the night sky this image was taken.

Located around 160,000 light years from Earth, the Large Magellanic Cloud is the third closest galaxy to the Milky Way. Due to its diminutive size (about one-hundredth the size of the Milky Way) and relatively close proximity, the LMC actually orbits the Milky Way as a satellite. The LMC is visible to the naked eye from the southern hemisphere (pictured below), between the constellations of Dorado and Mensa. In this photo, eso1348a, the main feature is NGC 2035 — the bright, white region on the right side of the frame.

Large Magellanic Cloud, between the Dorado and Mensa constellations

Large Magellanic Cloud, between the Dorado and Mensa constellations

NGC 2035, also known as the Dragon’s Head Nebula (because it kind of looks like a dragon’s head), is a star-forming stellar nursery. The bright glow is caused by gas clouds being struck by radiation given off by newly formed stars.

If the region on the right of the photo symbolizes life, the red filaments on the left are symbolic of death. Here you are looking at the remnants of a supernova event, SNR 0536-67.6. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of information about SNR 0536-67.6, but judging by the width of the emissions — both the filaments and the Dragon’s Head Nebula are hundreds of light years across — the supernova occurred a long time ago. When a star goes supernova, it generates a truly stupendous amount of energy, kicking out huge amounts of radiation, dust (this is where all of our heavy elements come from), and gas — star stuff that then becomes the foundation of stars, new planets, and, at least once, intelligent life.

As a fun aside, supernovae generate so much energy that a new unit had to be coined — the foe, or fifty one ergs. The sun is expected to produce around one foe in its entire lifetime — a big supernova can release tens of foes in a few seconds.

eso1348a, showing NGC 2035 (Dragon's Head nebular) and supernova remnants

eso1348a (click to zoom in)

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The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope is situated at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. The VLT consists of four individual telescopes, each equipped with massive 8.2-meter mirrors. The telescopes can be combined to achieve very high angular resolution, but each individual telescope is also equipped with a wide variety of instruments. Between the four mirrors, there are some 16 instruments, designed to cover huge swathe of the spectrum, from ultraviolet to mid-infrared.

Now read: Alien spotting: By 2020, we’ll finally have the ability to locate life-harboring, alien planets

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