Orion in a new light - ESO's VISTA telescope exposes high-speed antics of young stars

The Orion Nebula reveals many of its hidden secrets in a dramatic image taken by the new UK-designed VISTA telescope. The survey telescope's huge field of view can show the full splendour of the whole nebula and VISTA's infrared vision also allows it to peer deeply into dusty regions that are normally hidden and expose the curious behaviour of the very active young stars buried there.

VISTA - the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy - is the latest addition to ESO's Paranal Observatory. It is the largest survey telescope in the world and is dedicated to mapping the sky at infrared wavelengths. The large (4.1-metre) mirror, wide field of view and very sensitive detectors make VISTA a unique instrument. This dramatic new image of the Orion Nebula illustrates VISTA's remarkable powers.

The Orion Nebula is a vast stellar nursery lying about 1350 light-years from Earth. Although the nebula is spectacular when seen through an ordinary telescope, what can be seen using visible light is only a small part of a cloud of gas in which stars are forming. Most of the action is deeply embedded in dust clouds and to see what is really happening astronomers need to use telescopes with detectors sensitive to the longer wavelength radiation that can penetrate the dust. VISTA has imaged the Orion Nebula at wavelengths about twice as long as can be detected by the human eye.

Professor Jim Emerson, leader of the VISTA consortium from Queen Mary University of London, said, "When I started in infrared astronomy we had to collect data with 1 pixel cameras. The UK expertise that designed and built VISTA now enables one to acquire images like this with 100s of millions of pixels. It's amazing how much this will push forward the frontiers of our knowledge of star formation."

Professor Ian Robson, Director of The STFC UK ATC who were in charge of building the VISTA facility added, "It is hugely rewarding to see the fantastic new science that VISTA is now producing; this capability for deep survey studies will enable astronomers to understand better the evolution of the Universe and the building blocks of the galaxies and stars within it."

As in the many visible light pictures of this object, the new wide field VISTA image shows the familiar bat-like form of the nebula in the centre of the picture as well as the fascinating surrounding area. At the very heart of this region lie the four bright stars forming the Trapezium, a group of very hot young stars pumping out fierce ultraviolet radiation that is clearing the surrounding region and making the gas glow. However, observing in the infrared allows VISTA to reveal many other young stars in this central region that cannot be seen in visible light.

Looking to the region above the centre of the picture, curious red features appear that are completely invisible except in the infrared. Many of these are very young stars that are still growing and are seen through the dusty clouds from which they form. These youthful stars eject streams of gas with typical speeds of 700 000 km/hour and many of the red features highlight the places where these gas streams collide with the surrounding gas, causing emission from excited molecules and atoms in the gas. There are also a few faint, red features below the Orion Nebula in the image, showing that stars form there too, but with much less vigour. These strange features are of great interest to astronomers studying the birth and youth of stars.

"On the one hand the panoramic infrared overview given by VISTA's wide field of view shows the relationships between the young stars and the gas and dust they were born from, and on the other hand VISTA's exquisite detail and sensitivity allows finding even very faint young stars," said Emerson.

This new image shows the power of the VISTA telescope to image wide areas of sky quickly and deeply in the near-infrared part of the spectrum. The telescope is just starting to survey the sky and astronomers are anticipating a rich harvest of science from this unique ESO facility.

VISTA was conceived and developed by a consortium of 18 Universities in the UK led by Queen Mary University of London and is an in-kind contribution to ESO as part of the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council's accession agreement.


Notes for editors

Images

Orion Nebula

VISTA's infrared view of the Orion Nebula This wide-field view of the Orion Nebula (Messier 42), lying about 1350 light-years from Earth, was taken with the VISTA infrared survey telescope at ESO's Paranal Observatory in Chile. The new telescope's huge field of view allows the whole nebula and its surroundings to be imaged in a single picture and its infrared vision also means that it can peer deep into the normally hidden dusty regions and reveal the curious antics of the very active young stars buried there. This image was created from images taken through Z, J and Ks filters in the near-infrared part of the spectrum. The exposure times were ten minutes per filter. The image covers a region of sky about one degree by 1.5 degrees.

Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA
Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

Extracts from VISTA image

Extracts from the VISTA infrared image of the Orion Nebula On the upper-left, the central region of VISTA's view of the Orion Nebula is shown, centred on the four dazzling stars of the Trapezium. A rich cluster of young stars can be seen here that is invisible in normal, visible light images. In the lower-right panel the part of the nebula to the north of the centre is shown. Here there are many young stars embedded in the dust clouds that are only apparent because their infrared glow can penetrate the dust and be detected by the VISTA camera. Many outflows, jets and other interactions from young stars are apparent, seen in the infrared glow from molecular hydrogen and showing up as red blobs. On the upper-right, a region to the west of centre is shown. Here the fierce ultraviolet light from the Trapezium is sculpting the gas clouds into curious wavy shapes. A distant edge-on spiral galaxy is also seen shining right through the nebula. At the lower-left a region south of the centre is shown. The upper-left and lower-right extracts cover a region of sky about 15 arcminutes across, the other two panels are slightly smaller in extent.

Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA
Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

Infrared/Visible comparison

Infrared/visible comparison of the full VISTA Orion Nebula image The left-hand panel shows the Orion Nebula in visible light. Most of the light from the spectacular clouds comes from hydrogen gas glowing under the fierce ultraviolet glare from the central hot young stars. The region above the centre is clearly obscured by dust clouds. On the right the VISTA infrared view is shown. By observing infrared light many new features appear, including large numbers of young stars close to the centre and many curious red objects, associated with young stars and their outflows, in the region above the centre.

Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA & R. Gendler
Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

Infrared/Visible comparison

Infrared/visible comparison of an extract from the VISTA Orion Nebula image The left-hand panel shows a dusty region of the Orion Nebula in visible light. On the right the VISTA infrared view is shown. By observing infrared light many new features appear, including many young stars and their outflows. These strange features are of great interest to astronomers studying the birth and youth of stars.

Credit: ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA & R. Gendler
Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

More information

The Orion Nebula
The Orion Nebula lies in the sword of the famous celestial hunter and is a favourite target both for casual sky watchers and astrophysicists alike. It is faintly visible to the unaided eye and appeared to early telescopic observers as a small cluster of blue-white stars surrounded by a mysterious grey-green mist. The object was first described in the early seventeenth century although the identity of the discoverer is uncertain. The French comet-hunter Messier made an accurate sketch of its main features in the mid-eighteenth century and gave it the number 42 in his famous catalogue. He also allocated the number 43 to the smaller detached region just above the main part of the nebula. Later William Herschel speculated that the nebula might be 'the chaotic material of future suns' and astronomers have since discovered that the mist is indeed gas glowing under the fierce ultraviolet light from young hot stars that have recently formed there.

ESO
ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organisation in Europe and the world's most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 14 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organising cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world's most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and VISTA, the world's largest survey telescope. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 42-metre European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become "the world's biggest eye on the sky".

VISTA and the UK
VISTA was conceived and developed by a consortium of 18 Universities in the UK led by Queen Mary University of London and is an in-kind contribution to ESO as part of the UK's accession agreement. The telescope design and construction were project managed by STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC). VISTA was formally handed over to ESO at a ceremony at ESO's Headquarters in Garching, Germany, attended by representatives of Queen Mary, University of London and STFC on 10 December 2009 and is operated by ESO.

VISTA consortium
VISTA is a £37 million project, funded by grants from the DTI's (now BIS) Joint Infrastructure Fund and the STFC to Queen Mary, University of London, the lead institute of the VISTA consortium. VISTA is project managed by STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre and the VISTA camera was built at the STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

The VISTA consortium consists of:
Queen Mary University of London, Queen's University of Belfast, University of Birmingham, University of Cambridge, Cardiff University, University of Central Lancashire, Durham University, The University of Edinburgh, University of Hertfordshire, Keele University, Leicester University, Liverpool John Moores University, University of Nottingham, University of Oxford, University of St Andrews, University of Southampton, University of Sussex, University College London


Contacts

Julia Short
Press Officer
Science and Technology Facilities Council
Tel: +44 (0) 1793 44 2012
E-mail: julia.short@stfc.ac.uk

Richard Hook
Survey Telescopes PIO
ESO
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6655
Email: rhook@eso.org


Links

VISTA information

VISTA handout

Science and Technology Facilities Council The Science and Technology Facilities Council ensures the UK retains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange partnerships.

The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:

The Council gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF), the European organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO) and the European Space Agency (ESA). It also owns and operates telescopes in Hawaii and La Palma (Canary Islands) and contributes to the operations of facilities in Chile and Australia, together with the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility at the Jodrell Bank Observatory.