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Space Seagull! Telescope Captures a Celestial Gull in Flight (Video)

Are those cosmic wings? A new image of the Seagull Nebula shows a shape that looks just like a glittering gull in flight across the night sky.

The purple-and-orange hued image from the European Southern Observatory's VLT Survey Telescope shows the wispy nebula, or gas cloud, that is a region of starbirth some 3,700 light-years away from Earth. (One light-year is the distance light travels in a year, about 6 trillion miles or 10 trillion kilometers.)

"The main components of the Seagull are three large clouds of gas, the most distinctive being Sharpless 2-296, which forms the 'wings'," the European Southern Observatory said in a statement. "Spanning about 100 light-years from one wingtip to the other, Sh2-296 displays glowing material and dark dust lanes weaving amid bright stars."

Gallery: Strange Nebula Shapes: What do YOU See?

Flying through the cosmos some 3,400 light-years away from Earth is a bird-shaped cloud of dust and gas known as the Seagull Nebula, or Sharpless 2-296. The European Southern Observatory's VLT Survey Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this new view of the cosmic seagull, which is rich with new star formation. (Image credit: ESO/VPHAS/N.J. Wright (Keele University))

Sprinkled around the image are young stars, which blast out large amounts of radiation and cause the nearby clouds to glow. The largest in the picture is about 20 times more massive than the sun. The radiation also sculpts the cloud shapes, as pressure from the stars pushes on the gas and dust blanketing the region.

In between the purple and orange hues in the picture are dark zones, also known as also known as dust lanes. These are denser regions of the nebula that obscure luminous gas behind. While the gas looks thick in the picture overall, ESO noted that it's so thinly dispersed that even the best artificial vacuum on Earth cannot replicate it. At best, the gas density is only a few hundred atoms per cubic centimeter.

The Seagull is in between the constellations of Canis Major (The Great Dog) and Monocereos (the Unicorn) and resides in one of the arms of the Milky Way. Nebulas are common in spiral galaxies like the Milky Way, and tend to be concentrated in galaxy arms, ESO officals said.

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Elizabeth Howell
Elizabeth Howell is a contributing writer for who is one of the few Canadian journalists to report regularly on space exploration. She is pursuing a Ph.D. part-time in aerospace sciences (University of North Dakota) after completing an M.Sc. (space studies) at the same institution. She also holds a bachelor of journalism degree from Carleton University. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications at the university and community college level. To see her latest projects, follow Elizabeth on Twitter at @HowellSpace.