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'Gecko' Space Cloud Floats Among Millions of Stars (Video)

Photo of the nebula Barnard 86 by ESO telescopes
This wide-field view shows the very rich star fields of the Large Sagittarius Star Cloud and the cluster NGC 6520 and the neighbouring dark cloud Barnard 86. It was created from images from the Digitized Sky Survey 2. (Image credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin)

A dark gecko-shaped nebula nests among millions of stars about 6,000 light-years from the sun in an incredible new image from a telescope in Chile.

The photo, released today (Feb. 13) by the European Southern Observatory, shows the dark cloud set against millions of stars in a part of the Sagittarius constellation. This area of the Milky Way galaxy — known as the Large Sagittarius Star Cloud — is one of the most star-dense areas in the galaxy, ESO officials said.

One of the most striking aspects of the photo, however, is the seemingly starless, dark nebula called Barnard 86 tucked amid the dazzling backdrop of stars.

"Through a small telescope Barnard 86 looks like a dearth of stars, or a window onto a patch of distant, clearer sky," ESO officials explained in an image description. "However, this object is actually in the foreground of the star field — a cold, dark, dense cloud made up of small dust grains that block starlight and make the region appear opaque."

The dark nebula Barnard 86 (right) and the star cluster NGC 6520 (left) make a beautiful cosmic pairing. (Image credit: ESO)

The cloud is most likely composed of material left over after the formation of the NGC 6520 star cluster just off to its left, scientists said.

NGC 6520 contains a multitude of young, bright blue glowing stars that all probably formed around the same time, but it's difficult to understand the exact age of the stars in the cluster, ESO scientists added. Because so many stars are located in this part of the Large Sagittarius Star Cloud, isolating and observing the star cluster is difficult.

Barnard 86 might still be producing new stars. Some dark nebulas create stars, but experts cannot tell if Barnard 86 is still a productive cloud.

The photo was taken by a 7.2 foot (2.2 meters) telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile. The imager used to capture the picture observed an area of the sky equivalent to the size of the full moon, Richard Hook, a spokesperson with ESO told SPACE.com.

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Miriam Kramer
Miriam Kramer joined Space.com as a staff writer in December 2012. Since then, she has floated in weightlessness on a zero-gravity flight, felt the pull of 4-Gs in a trainer aircraft and watched rockets soar into space from Florida and Virginia. She also serves as Space.com's lead space entertainment reporter, and enjoys all aspects of space news, astronomy and commercial spaceflight.  Miriam has also presented space stories during live interviews with Fox News and other TV and radio outlets. She originally hails from Knoxville, Tennessee where she and her family would take trips to dark spots on the outskirts of town to watch meteor showers every year. She loves to travel and one day hopes to see the northern lights in person. You can follow Miriam on Twitter and Google+.