The Seagull Nebula, on the border between Canis Major and Monoceros some 3,700 light years away, resembles a great bird in flight with a wingspan stretching 100 light years from tip to tip. That description is an example of pareidolia, the human tendency to find familiar patterns in random or ambiguous shapes. In this case, the “seagull” is a vast collection of clouds made up of dust, hydrogen, helium and trace amounts of heavier elements, a stellar nursery providing the raw materials for new generations of stars. This stunning image from the European Southern Observatory’s VLT Survey Telescope shows the Seagull Nebula in remarkable detail, from ionised gas and dark dust lanes in Sharpless 2-296, the “wings” of the seagull, to the compact cloud forming its head where a piercing eye – a 20-solar-mass extremely luminous star – brilliantly shines.
Many galaxies are chock-full of dust, while others have occasional dark streaks of opaque cosmic soot swirling in amongst their gas and stars. However, the irregular dwarf galaxy IC 1613 contains very little cosmic dust, allowing astronomers to explore its contents with great clarity. This is not just a matter of appearances; the galaxy’s cleanliness is vital to our understanding of the universe around us.
A fossilised remnant of the early Milky Way harbouring stars of hugely different ages has been revealed by an international team of astronomers. Terzan 5 resembles a globular cluster, but is unlike any other cluster known. It contains stars remarkably similar to the most ancient stars in the Milky Way and bridges the gap in understanding between our galaxy’s past and its present.