ESO has published a photo of the nebula NGC 2467, also known as the Skull Nebula, taken using the FORS2 instrument mounted on the VLT in Chile. It’s a stellar nursery as it contains a lot of gas that’s still forming a number of new stars and consequently sees a predominance of young, often massive, stars. The photo was taken as part of ESO’s Cosmic Gems programme, which has also an educational purpose.
The nebula NGC 2467 has a distance from the Earth that’s different depending on the area and several studies provided very variable estimates of those distances. NGB 2467 was initially described as a planetary nebula by its discoverer William Herschel in 1784, limited by the instruments of his era. Today it’s cataloged as an emission nebula because the ionized gas it contains emits light of various colors. The presence of young massive stars determines those emissions by ionizing the gas thanks to the large amount of energy released.
The nickname Skull Nebula, also Skull and Crossbones Nebula, is due to the appearance that’s noticeable especially in photos such as those taken with the 2.2 meter MPG telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, also in Chile, such as the bottom example. At the center of the pink area there’s HD 64315, one of the nebula’s massive young stars, which is influencing the structure of the surrounding area with its activity.
The colors of the nebula stand out even more in photos taken using the FORS2 (FOcal Reducer and low dispersion Spectrograph 2) instrument mounted on the VLT (Very Large Telescope) such as the top example. The new image also shows the differences in the various areas, due to the fact that actually it’s not a single nebula but is formed by various clusters that move at different speeds.
Over time, the NGC 2467 nebula has been the subject of several studies that concerned it in its entirety or focused on some specific areas precisely because of the presence of so many young stars and protostars. Star nurseries like NGC 2467 can offer very interesting information on various stages of star formation processes.
The images generated by the various ESO instruments during the observations are collected in an archive that can be useful for future research. In some cases the VLT can’t be used for scientific research, but the Cosmic Gems programme allows to produce images that can be interesting for educational use and attract attention for aesthetic reasons as well. Many astronomical images are both spectacular and useful from a scientific point of view, initiatives to spread them can capture the attention and generate interest in astronomy.