coalsack dark nebula

La Silla Poses for an ultra HD shoot

A curtain of stars surrounds the 3.58-metre New Technology Telescope (NTT) in this new Ultra High Definition photograph from the ESO Ultra HD Expedition. It was captured on the first night of shooting at ESO’s La Silla Observatory, which sits at 2400 metres above sea level on the outskirts of the Chilean Atacama Desert.

The majestic telescope enclosure aligns perfectly with the Milky Way’s central region — the brightest section and the area which obscures the galactic centre. The distinctive octagonal enclosure that houses the NTT stands tall in this image — silhouetted against the glittering cosmos above and almost appearing to consume the Milky Way. This telescope housing was considered a technological breakthrough when completed in 1989.

Visible to the left of the Milky Way is the bright orange star Antares at the heart of Scorpius (The Scorpion). Saturn can be seen as the brightest point to the upper left of Antares and Alpha and Beta Centauri glow in the upper right of the image. The Southern Cross (Crux) and the Coalsack dark nebula are also visible looming above Alpha and Beta Centauri.

La Silla was ESO’s first observatory, inaugurated in 1969. The NTT pictured above was the first telescope in the world to have a computer-controlled main mirror and broke new ground for telescope engineering and design paving the way for ESO’s Very Large Telescope.

Image credit: ESO/B.Tafreshi

An emu in the sky over Paranal

Sitting atop Cerro Paranal high above the Atacama Desert in Chile, two of the Very Large Telescope’s Unit Telescopes quietly bask in the starlight, observing the Milky Way as it arches over ESO's Paranal Observatory.

Several interesting objects can be seen in this picture. Some of the most prominent are the two Magellanic Clouds — one Small (SMC), one Large (LMC) — which appear brightly in between the two telescopes. By contrast, the dark Coalsack Nebula can be seen as an obscuring smudge across the Milky Way, resembling a giant cosmic thumbprint above the telescope on the left.

The Magellanic Clouds are both located within the Local Group of galaxies that includes our galaxy, the Milky Way. The LMC lies at a distance of 163 000 light-years from our galaxy, and the SMC at 200 000 light-years. The Coalsack Nebula, on the other hand, is a mere stone’s throw away in comparison. At roughly 600 light-years from the Solar System, it is the most visible dark nebula in our skies.

The Coalsack has been recorded by many ancient cultures, and is identified as the head of the Emu in the Sky by several indigenous Australian groups. Aboriginal Australians are most likely the oldest practitioners of astronomy in the world, and they identify their constellations by use of dark nebulae — as opposed to stars, as is the Western tradition.

In the Southern hemisphere, these dark clouds are more prominent than in the Northern sky. Other cultures also had dark constellations — for example, the Inca in South America. A particularly important constellation to the Inca astronomers was one known as Urcuchillay (The Llama), representing the significance of the animals in their culture as a source of food, wool, and transport.

Image credit: ESO/Y. Beletsky

The sky near the southern celestial pole, including the constellation Crux and the Coalsack Dark Nebula. The southern sky contains many more dark nebulae visible against the Milky Way than the northern sky, and the astronomies of southern cultures often figure these dark nebulae prominently as their figures in the night sky. In Australian Aboriginal astronomy, the Coalsack was the head of the Emu in the sky, and in Incan astronomy, it was the Yulu, or partridge.