The 60th anniversary of the European Southern Observatory has been marked by the release of a stunning new image of the Cone Nebula
For the past 60 years, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) has been enabling scientists worldwide to discover the secrets of the Universe. This milestone has been marked by the release of a spectacular new image of a star factory, the Cone Nebula, taken with ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT).
On 5 October 1962 five countries signed the convention to create ESO. Now, six decades later and supported by 16 member states and strategic partners, ESO brings together scientists and engineers from across the globe to develop and operate advanced ground-based observatories in Chile that enable breakthrough astronomical discoveries. ESO is supported by Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a strategic partner.
On the occasion of ESO’s 60th anniversary, the organisation is releasing this remarkable new image of the Cone Nebula, captured earlier this year with one of ESO’s telescopes and selected by ESO staff. This is part of a campaign marking ESO’s 60th anniversary and taking place in late 2022, both on social media under the #ESO60years hashtag, and with local events in the ESO member states and other countries.
less than 2,500 light-years away
In this new image, centre stage is the seven-light-year-long pillar of the Cone Nebula, which is part of the larger star-forming region NGC 2264 and was discovered in the late 18th Century by astronomer William Herschel. In the night sky, the horn-shaped nebula is found in the constellation Monoceros (The Unicorn), a surprisingly fitting name.
Located less than 2,500 light-years away, the Cone Nebula is relatively close to Earth, making it a well-studied object. But this view is more dramatic than any obtained before, as it showcases the nebula’s dark and impenetrable cloudy appearance in a way that makes it resemble a mythological creature.
The Cone Nebula is a perfect example of the pillar-like shapes that develop in the giant clouds of cold molecular gas and dust, known for creating new stars. This type of pillar arises when massive, newly formed bright blue stars give off stellar winds and intense ultraviolet radiation that blow away the material from their vicinity.
As this material is pushed away, the gas and dust further away from the young stars gets compressed into dense, dark and tall pillar-like shapes. This process helps create the dark Cone Nebula, pointing away from the brilliant stars in NGC 2264.
The first image of an exoplanet (amongst other things…)
In the image, obtained with the FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph 2 (FORS2) on ESO’s VLT in Chile, hydrogen gas is represented in blue and sulphur gas in red. The use of these filters makes the otherwise bright blue stars, that indicate the recent star formation, appear almost golden, contrasting with the dark cone-like sparklers.
This image is just one example of the many stunning and awe-inspiring observations ESO telescopes have made in the past 60 years. While this image was obtained for outreach purposes, the overwhelming majority of ESO’s telescope time is dedicated to scientific observations that have allowed us to capture the first image of an exoplanet, study the black hole at the centre of our home galaxy, and find proof that the expansion of our Universe is accelerating.
Building on 60 years of experience in astronomy development, discovery and cooperation, ESO continues to chart new territory for astronomy, technology and international collaboration. With its current facilities and ESO’s upcoming Extremely Large Telescope (ELT), the organisation will keep on addressing humanity’s biggest questions about the Universe and enabling unimaginable discoveries.
Image: The Cone Nebula is part of a star-forming region of space, NGC 2264, about 2500 light-years away. Its pillar-like appearance is a perfect example of the shapes that can develop in giant clouds of cold molecular gas and dust, known for creating new stars. This dramatic new view of the nebula was captured with the FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph 2 (FORS2) instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), and released on the occasion of ESO’s 60th anniversary. © ESO.