Observational astronomy can be tricky. Even with our strongest telescopes, looking at far away objects can be like trying to see details of the Grand Canyon through the late summer smog, or picking out a distant mountain range through a dust storm. There is a lot of "space dust" out there, especially when you are trying to look at details within nebulae, the birthplace of stars.
Take the nebula Messier 78, for example, located in the constellation of Orion. Looking at M78 through a regular visible light telescope, we get an image like this:
This is an absolutely gorgeous image. But what's going on inside that nebula? Until now, we just accepted that they are big clouds of dust, and that we just can't see inside them. And since M78 is what is called a reflection nebula, that adds a bit of complication to matters. Not only are there clouds of dust, but the light of the stars nearby actually ionize the dust, making it reflect their light so we can see even less. It makes for a beautiful show, but it also hides what's inside pretty efficiently.
Now, however, ESO (European Southern Observatory) has a new tool in their astronomical toolbox: their Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy, or VISTA. This telescope looks at space in the near-infrared spectrum of light, which can tell us a lot more about what's hiding behind dusts and clouds. Here is what M78 looks like with the VISTA:
The dark clouds are dust and cosmic material that blocks the visible light of objects behind it. But as you can see, with VISTA's near-infrared vision, we can now see through some of the hazier parts to get a much crisper view of the stars and starlings within this nebula. Not only can you see the very bright blue supergiant stars, but you can also see stars that are just developing in the nursery that is the nebula. These stars are so new, they aren't yet hot enough for fusion to take place in their cores. With VISTA's help, we can watch these stars develop and learn more about how stars are formed than ever before.
Melanie R. Meadors is an author and editor of science fiction and fantasy, blogger at The Once and Future Podcast, and a professional author publicist. She studied physics and astronomy at Northern Arizona University, where no day was complete without a heated debate over relativity versus quantum mechanics. You can find her at her website, melaniermeadors.com, on Facebook, and Twitter, @melaniermeadors.