From their 7,800-foot-high perch on a mountain in the southern part of Chile's almost rainless Atacama Desert, astronomers at La Silla Observatory last week captured a striking new image of NGC 346, a cluster of thousands of stars 210,000 light-years away.
The hazy cluster, 200 light-years across, is the brightest star-forming region in the Small Magellanic Cloud, a nearby dwarf galaxy in the constellation Tucana (Toucan) that is visible to the naked eye in the southern hemisphere.
"Images like this help astronomers chronicle star birth and evolution, while offering glimpses of how stellar development influences the appearance of the cosmic environment over time," according to the European Southern Observatory (ESO), an intergovernmental astronomical organization with 14 European members, famed for building some of the world's most technically advanced telescopes.
The image was taken using the Wide Field Imager (WFI) instrument at the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope, which is on permanent loan from the Max Planck Society for the Advancement of Science in Munich.
"The light, wind and heat given off by massive stars have dispersed the glowing gas within and around this star cluster, forming a surrounding wispy nebular structure that looks like a cobweb," according to the ESO press release.
"NGC 346, like other beautiful astronomical scenes, is a work in progress, and changes as the aeons pass. As yet more stars form from loose matter in the area, they will ignite, scattering leftover dust and gas, carving out great ripples and altering the face of this lustrous object."
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