The bright star cluster NGC 6520 shines alongside the inky Barnard 86 nebula. (Photo: ESO)
If Star Road from Super Mario World was a real place, this would probably be it.
A seven-foot telescope in Chile has peered some 6,000 light-years into the Milky Way, shedding new light on one of the most star-studded regions anywhere in the galaxy. The resulting photos and video, released this week by the European Southern Observatory, offer a stunning look at the Large Sagittarius Star Cloud, as well as bizarre areas like the NGC 6520 star cluster and the gecko-shaped blob of darkness known as Barnard 86.
For the full effect, check out the video below, which starts off with a broad view of the Milky Way before zooming deep into the Large Sagittarius Star Cloud:
This up-close view comes courtesy of the Max Planck Gesellschaft/ESO 2.2-meter telescope, located at La Silla Observatory in Chile's Coquimbo Region. The final shot focuses on NGC 6520 and Barnard 86, a celestial odd couple that shares relatively close quarters in the bustling star field.
Barnard 86 is something known as a Bok globule — an extremely cold, dark cloud of gas and dust that tends to scatter and absorb background light, making it appear opaque. Its location in such a dense star field gives the impression of "a window onto a patch of distant, clearer sky," the ESO acknowledges, but it's just a dark nebula that obscures the stars behind it. The smattering of stars that seem to be inside Barnard 86 are actually in front of it, but this globule could still have a few stellar tricks up its sleeve. Many dark nebulae are known to serve as "nurseries" for newborn stars, and according to NASA, Barnard 86 itself is "likely to collapse and form a new star system."
Astronomers think the nebula formed from the tatters of another molecular cloud, which collapsed long ago to form the neighboring NGC 6520. Open star clusters like this usually contain several thousand stars of similar ages, the ESO explains, and exist for relatively brief periods — a few hundred million years or so — before eventually drifting apart.
The hot, bright blue-white stars in NGC 6520 are a "telltale sign of their youth," the agency adds. While the surrounding density of stars can make it difficult to observe this cluster, scientists estimate it's about 150 million years old. Both it and Barnard 86 are located roughly 6,000 light-years away from our sun.
That may be too far for spaceflight, but it's nothing a warp pipe couldn't handle.
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