'Buried Giants' in Space Set Crimson Space Clouds Aglow (Video, Photos)

Clouds of the RCW 106 Region
In this image from the European Southern Observatory, hidden stars illuminate the crimson gas clouds of the RCW 106 region in the southern constellation Norma (The Carpenter's Square). (Image credit: European Southern Observatory)

Crimson gas clouds in space shine bright with reflected light in this new view from a European Southern Observatory telescope in Chile. The light comes from young stars that are buried deeply in a surrounding dust cloud.

The region is called RCW 106, and is located about 12,000 light-years away in the southern constellation Norma (The Carpenter's Square). This is the 106th entry in a catalog of H II regions, which have clouds of hydrogen gas that are being ionized (electrically charged) by nearby young stars. You can take a video tour of the dazzling new image, courtesy of ESO scientists, who dubbed the young stars as "buried giants" in an image description." 

The image shows RCW 106 in the top center, as well as some unrelated objects captured by the VLT Survey Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. At right are remains of an old supernova, and at young left are some gas clouds surrounding a young star. The rest of the image is clouded with dust.

"Astronomers have been studying RCW 106 for some time, although it is not the crimson clouds that draw their attention, but rather the mysterious origin of the massive and powerful stars buried within," the European Southern Observatory wrote in a statement.

This annotated space image shows the region RCW 106 (center) and its neighboring regions as seen by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile. (Image credit: European Southern Observatory)

"Although they are very bright, these stars cannot be seen in visible-light images such as this one as the surrounding dust is too thick, but they make their presence clear in images of the region at longer wavelengths."

How these stars formed remain a mystery to astronomer. Stars like our sun began by pulling in gas. As the density, temperature and gravity increased, the combination created nuclear fusion. But these other stars -- known as O-type stars -- are many dozens of times more massive than the sun. Astronomers aren't sure how these stars gathered or pushed together the surrounding gas.

The region RCW 106 shines in all its dazzling glory in this wide-field view captured by the Very Large Telescope, part of the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The image was unveiled on March 2, 2016. (Image credit: European Southern Observatory)

What is known about O-type stars is they come to be inside thick gas clouds (such as what are seen in RCW 106) and that they are so big that they consume their fuel in just tens of millions of years. They are also quite rare; only one in three million stars are O-types.

“None of those that do exist are close enough for detailed investigation and so the formation of these fleeting stellar giants remains mysterious, although their outsized influence is unmistakable in glowing H II regions like this one," ESO added.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace