Aug. 15, 2012 — It resembles the shape of the spidery battleship piloted by the evil race of aliens called the Shadows — from the classic sci-fi TV series Babylon 5 — but this object is a lot bigger, measuring many light-years across. It also looks like a mysterious void separating a vast, glistening expanse of stars — but this eerie-looking cosmic shape certainly isn't empty.
This spectacular observation is actually part of the Pipe Nebula — also known as Barnard 59 — and was captured by the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory, Chile. The nebula is a thick cloud of interstellar dust and gas, blocking the light of the background stars located near the center of the Milky Way. The Pipe Nebula is located 600-700 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Ophiuchus.
Dark and foreboding the nebula may look, but its wispy tendrils hold the promise of new life — newborn stars. Looking closely at the image you can see the glow of young stars shortly after pockets of gas from the nebula collapsed under gravity, sparking fusion, giving birth to new suns.
As an added bonus, you may be able to spot faint streaks of blue and red — these are asteroids located in our Solar System's asteroid belt drifting in front of the nebula while the observation was underway.
-- by Ian O'Neill