Orion molecular cloud
This image from the VISTA infrared survey telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory in northern Chile is part of the largest infrared high-resolution mosaic of Orion ever created. It covers the Orion A molecular cloud, the nearest known massive star factory, lying about 1,350 light-years from Earth, and reveals many young stars and other objects normally buried deep inside the dusty clouds. ESO/VISION survey

Astronomers have, using the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Paranal Observatory in Chile, captured a stunning new image of the Orion A molecular cloud. The structure, located roughly 1,350 light-years from Earth in the famous Orion constellation, hosts the nearest known stellar factory — the Orion Nebula.

“This impressively detailed image of Orion A establishes a new observational foundation for further studies of star and cluster formation and once again highlights the power of the VISTA telescope to image wide areas of sky quickly and deeply in the near-infrared part of the spectrum,” the ESO said in a statement accompanying the image.

Orion molecular cloud2
This collection of highlights is taken from a new infrared image of the Orion A molecular cloud from the VISTA telescope. Many curious structures are clearly seen, including the red jets from very young stars, dark clouds of dust and even tiny images of very distant galaxies. ESO/VISION survey

Orion A is one of the two ginormous molecular clouds in the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex — a region that stretches from Orion’s “belt” to the “sword.” Previous observations have revealed that it houses thousands of young stars, some of which would one day form solar systems.

The image also shows many young stars that cannot be seen in visible light, but become visible in the infrared wavelengths the VISTA telescope operates in. As a result, the instrument allows scientists to study the earliest evolutionary phases of young stars.

“The new image represents a step towards a complete picture of the star formation processes in Orion A, for both low and high mass stars,” the ESO said. “We can look into Orion A’s dark molecular clouds and spot many hidden treasures, including discs of material that could give birth to new stars (pre-stellar discs), nebulosity associated with newly-born stars (Herbig-Haro objects), smaller star clusters and even galaxy clusters lying far beyond the Milky Way.”