Nebulas glow with forming stars in stunning new image

Nebulas NGC 3603 (left) and NGC 3576 (right), as imaged in infrared by VISTA.
Nebulas NGC 3603 (left) and NGC 3576 (right), as imaged in infrared by VISTA. (Image credit: ESO/VVVX survey)

The James Webb Space Telescope isn't the only observatory peering deep into nebulas and taking captivating infrared images of them.

The European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) has captured this haunting infrared image of two nebulas, known as NGC 3603 and NGC 3576.

Nebulas are giant clouds of interstellar dust and gas where stars are born. In optical images, that dust usually obscures the view of what is going on within these stellar nurseries. But astronomers can peer inside of them through infrared images such as this one, giving them a closer look at how stars form.

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NGC 3603 and NGC 3576, also known as the Statue of Liberty Nebula for its statuesque shape, were discovered by astronomer John Frederick William Herschel in 1834. That year, he traveled to South Africa to observe the skies from the Southern Hemisphere, adding new astronomical objects to his catalog. That original catalog was expanded by astronomer John Louis Emil Dreyer in 1888 into the New General Catalogue, from which the nebulas take their NGC identifier. 

Although they appear to be neighbors, NGC 3603 is 22,000 light-years away from Earth, while NGC 3576 is just 9,000 light-years away from Earth. Both are much farther than the closest stellar nebula: the Orion Nebula (Messier 42), which is about 1,350 light-years away from Earth. And the Eagle Nebula, famed for its Pillars of Creation that were recently imaged by Webb, is approximately 6,500 light-years away from Earth. 

But NGC 3603 and NGC 3576 are still close enough on a galactic scale for astronomers to get a reasonably good look inside to study stellar formation. They are both located within the Milky Way galaxy; NGC 3603 is located in the Carina–Sagittarius Arm, while NGC 3576 is located in the Sagittarius Arm.

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Stefanie Waldek
Contributing writer

Space.com contributing writer Stefanie Waldek is a self-taught space nerd and aviation geek who is passionate about all things spaceflight and astronomy. With a background in travel and design journalism, as well as a Bachelor of Arts degree from New York University, she specializes in the budding space tourism industry and Earth-based astrotourism. In her free time, you can find her watching rocket launches or looking up at the stars, wondering what is out there. Learn more about her work at www.stefaniewaldek.com (opens in new tab).