Telescope Photographs Inky 'Strawberry Cocktail' Nebula for 15th Birthday

Nebula IC 2944
This stellar nursery shines 6,500 light-years from Earth. Image Released May 23, 2013. (Image credit: ESO)

An amazing photo of a stellar nursery located 6,500 light-years away from Earth marks the 15-year cosmic anniversary of a telescope in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Very Large Telescope — located in Chile's Atacama Desert and operated by the European Southern Observatory — captured this incredible image of the nebula IC 2944 as it shines in the southern constellation Centaurus.

The Very Large Telescope saw first light on May 25, 1989. Image Released May 23, 2013. (Image credit: ESO/P.D. Barthel/M. McCaughrean/M. Andersen/S. Gillessen et al./Y. Beletsky/R. Chini/T. Preibisch)

"These opaque blobs resemble drops of ink floating in a strawberry cocktail, their whimsical shapes sculpted by powerful radiation coming from the nearby brilliant young stars," ESO officials said. [Greatest Hits from ESO's Very Large Telescope (Video)]

The newly released image is the sharpest shot of IC 2944 ever taken from the ground, ESO officials said, and it makes sense that the VLT would be responsible for capturing it. The VLT is the "world's most advanced optical instrument," ESO officials added.

"Emission nebulae like IC 2944 are composed mostly of hydrogen gas that glows in a distinctive shade of red, due to the intense radiation from the many brilliant newborn stars," officials from ESO wrote in a release. "Clearly revealed against this bright backdrop are mysterious dark clots of opaque dust, cold clouds known as Bok globules."

ESO officials also created a flyby video tour through the nebula using the images collected by the telescope.

The Bok globules (the dark splotches in a sea of red) in new ESO photo are being bombarded by ultraviolet radiation given off by brightly shining hot stars close by. Like lumps of butter in a hot frying pan the globules are "both being eroded away and also fragmenting," ESO officials said.

The globules depicted in this photo will likely not create new stars before they are obliterated.

The Hubble Space Telescope has also imaged this part of the sky for NASA and the European Space Agency, but the new image from the Very Large Telescope reveals a wider swath of sky with more star formation than the space telescope's views, ESO officials said.

The VLT was originally a combination of four giant telescopes, but now four smaller telescopes have joined the originals to create the VLT Interferometer. The first telescope in the instrument saw first light on May 25, 1998.

"The VLT is one of the most powerful and productive ground-based astronomical facilities in existence," ESO officials said. "In 2012 more than 600 refereed scientific papers based on data from the VLT and VLTI were published."

The ESO is run by 15 different countries and is considered the world's most productive ground-based astronomical observatory.

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Miriam Kramer
Staff Writer

Miriam Kramer joined 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 served as'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. Miriam is currently a space reporter with Axios, writing the Axios Space newsletter. You can follow Miriam on Twitter.