Behind the faint orange glow of the Sh2-54 nebula, a host of stars are revealed in this new infrared image. Located in the constellation of Serpens, this stunning stellar nursery was captured in incredible detail using the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile.

When the ancients looked at the night sky, they saw random patterns in the stars. For example, the Greeks called one of these “constellations” Serpens, because of its resemblance to a snake. What they wouldn’t have been able to see is that at the far end of this constellation is a wealth of stunning astronomical objects. These include the Eagle, the Omega, and the Sh2-54 Nebulae; the last of these is revealed in a new light in this spectacular infrared image.

Nebulae are huge clouds of gas and dust from which stars form. Telescopes have allowed astronomers to identify and analyze these rather faint objects in great detail. The nebula shown here, located about 6,000 light-years away, is officially named Sh2-54; the “Sh” refers to American astronomer Stewart Sharpless, who cataloged more than 300 nebulae in the 1950s.

As the technology used to explore the Universe advances, so does our understanding of these stellar nurseries. One of these advancements is the ability to see beyond the light that can be seen by our eyes, such as infrared light. Just as the serpent, the namesake of this nebula, has developed the ability to sense infrared light to better understand its environment, so too have we developed infrared instruments to learn more about the universe.

While visible light is easily absorbed by dust clouds in nebulae, infrared light can pass through the thick layers of dust almost unimpeded. The image here, therefore, reveals a wealth of stars hidden behind the veils of dust. This is especially useful because it allows scientists to study in much greater detail what happens in stellar nurseries and learn more about how stars form.

The Sh2-54 nebula in visible light with the VST
A visible-light image of the Sh2-54 nebula captured by the VLT Survey Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in Chile. At these wavelengths, the structure of the nebula is clear and the clouds of dust and gas block the light from the stars within and beyond. Credit: ESO

This image was captured in infrared light using the sensitive 67-million-dot camera on ESO’s VISTA telescope at Paranal Observatory in Chile. It was taken as part of the VVVX survey — the VISTA variables in the Via Láctea eXtended survey. This is a multi-year project that has repeatedly observed much of the Milky Way at infrared wavelengths and has provided important data to understand the evolution of stars.