Stunning Snapshot: Southern Star Cluster Helps Unlock Galactic Mysteries

The star cluster NGC 3590 shines brightly in front of a dramatic landscape of dark patches of dust and richly hued clouds of glowing gas. Courtesy of ESO/G. Beccari

A colorful portrait of a distant star cluster offers space buffs some eye candy. But it’s also telling astronomers a lot about the lives of stars and about our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

The stunning image combines individual snapshots taken in visible and infrared parts of the spectrum, as well as glowing hydrogen gas seen from the 2.2-meter La Silla Observatory in Chile. This cosmic canvas appears filled with clouds of dust and gas, glowing in vivid orange and red hues as the open star cluster known as NGC 3590 burns brightly in the foreground.

This loose association of stars consists of dozens of young, stellar giants all born at the same place and time (about 35 million years ago). Because they share the same pedigree, researchers can test models of how stars form and evolve by looking at them.

Also making NGC 3590 a perfect astronomical lab is its close proximity. Its stars huddle together some 7,500 light-years from Earth within a neighboring spiral arm of our galaxy named Carina or, more formally, the Carina-Sagittarius Arm.

In fact, our galaxy possesses two major and two minor pinwheeling arms—each one filled with millions of stars and stellar nurseries just like NGC 3590. Carina appears to be the largest spiral arm visible from our vantage point.

By observing stellar nurseries like this one in the Carina arm, in never-before-seen detail, astronomers are able to more accurately map out our galaxy’s structure and distances.

See for Yourself

The far-flung cluster NGC 3590 is best seen from the Southern Hemisphere, and while at magnitude 8.2 it represents a challenge for binoculars, it is a moderately easy target for small backyard telescopes.

This skychat shows the lcoation of the star cluster NGC 3590 in the southern constellation Carina-the keel.  Credit: SkySafari
This sky chart shows the location of the star cluster NGC 3590 in the southern constellation Carina, the Keel. Credit: SkySafari

Spread across nearly five light-years of space, the dozens of stars take up very little room in the eyepiece even under high magnification. They are ten times smaller in diameter than the full moon in the sky.

The NGC 3590 cluster is hidden within the large constellation Carina, the keel of the ship Argo that in mythology carried Jason and the Argonauts on their quest. While it may be a modest cluster, appearing as a tiny knot of faint stars, it is embedded in a very rich region of the southern Milky Way that is filled with countless stars and glowing nebulae.

That should make the quest to see them quite rewarding, even if you don’t see any Argonauts. Happy hunting.

Follow Andrew Fazekas, the Night Sky Guy, on TwitterFacebook, and his website.

Changing Planet

Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.