Space ‘koi fish’ caught by telescope

The Gum 3 nebula is likely a stellar nursery about 3,600 light years away.
Laura Baisas Avatar
a pink galaxy shaped like a koi fish
Astronomers believe that Gum 3 is a stellar nursery, where young stars are emitting powerful radiation that makes interstellar gas glow. ESO/VPHAS+ team. Ack.: CASU

Like clouds, the shapes of our galaxy’s glittery nebulae are sometimes in the eye of the beholder. They can look like all sorts of animals: tarantulas, crabs, a running chicken, and now, a cosmic koi swimming through space. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) captured this new image of the bubble gum-hued Gum 3 nebula with the VLT’s Survey Telescope, housed at the Paranal Observatory in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

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Gum 3 is an interstellar cloud of gas and dust that is roughly 3,600 light-years away, between the Monoceros and Canis Major constellations. The nebula’s name does not come from colors reflected in this image. It is actually named after the late Australian astronomer Colin Stanley Gum, who cataloged 84 nebulae across the southern sky. 

It is believed to be a stellar nursery that is illuminated by young stars. These baby stars are emitting powerful radiation that causes the interstellar gas to glow. The glowing forms fun patterns and shapes, like a koi fish.  

Gum 3 is located between the Monoceros and Canis Major constellations. CREDIT: ESO/VPHAS+ team. Ack.: CASU

When the intense ultraviolet radiation from nearby young stars hits hydrogen atoms in the cloud, they emit visible light at very specific colors, which we see as shades of red and pink in the image,” the ESO wrote in a statement. “At the same time, tiny particles of dust within the cloud reflect starlight, especially blue colors, similar to what makes the sky look blue here on Earth. This play of colors makes nebulae like this spectacular to look at.”

Nebulae can form from the dust and gas remnants of a stellar explosion or supernova. They can also form in dense regions of gas and dust where gravity pulls material together to create new stars. The stars in these nebulae all emit light at various wavelengths. 

Fortunately, the VST is equipped with an instrument called the OmegaCAM instrument. This giant 268-megapixel camera has 12 different broadband filters that allow scientists to observe emissions from stars and galaxies across a wide wavelength range. The ground-based telescope is designed to survey large areas of the southern sky in visible light to take images like this one of Gum 3.

[Related: 31 award-winning astronomy photos: From fiery horizons to whimsical auroras.]

This particular image not only shows off colorful light, but a lack of it. At the area just to the right of the brightest and most pink part of the cloud, there is a dark spot. This isn’t because there are fewer stars in the area. It’s actually a large clump of dust that is blocking parts of the visible light. The dust is essentially hiding the stars from this powerful telescope and our eyes.