July 15, 2012 — This explosion of red, orange and blue may look like an abstract work of art but it's actually a vast region of interstellar gas and dust where stars are being born, 2,300 light-years away from Earth.
Vela-C is a molecular cloud, part of the larger Vela Molecular Ridge structure within our Milky Way galaxy. Seen here in an image by ESA's Herschel Space Observatory, Vela-C's intricate, wispy filaments glow in far-infrared wavelengths. Shown in bright red, the coldest, densest parts of the cloud are where gas will gradually collapse under the force of its own gravity and eventually form stars. In fact, some stars have already formed in Vela-C — they are hiding inside the blue "butterfly" (called RCW 36) which shines in shorter wavelengths of light generated by the heat of the young, massive stars within.
These stars, each more massive than the sun, will burn through their stellar fuel relatively quickly, exploding in supernovae only 10 million years after their formation. (By comparison our sun is expected to have a life span of about 9-10 billion years, which it is currently in the middle of.)
The blue ring-shaped object at lower right is thought to be a similar structure to RCW 36, except that it may or may not be part of the Vela-C cloud.
Because different types of stars at different stages of formation are observed in Vela-C (and it's relatively close by) it's a great "natural laboratory" for astronomers studying the life cycles of stars, and Herschel's long-wavelength capabilities make it the perfect instrument with which to observe the structure of starbirth.
-- by Jason Major