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Stunning Snapshot: Southern Star Cluster Helps Unlock Galactic Mysteries

This colourful new image from the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile shows the star cluster NGC 3590. These stars shine brightly in front of a dramatic landscape of dark patches of dust and richly hued clouds of glowing gas. This small stellar gathering gives astronomers clues about how these stars form and evolve — as well as giving hints about the structure of our galaxy's pinwheeling arms.  Credit: ESO/G. Beccari
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.


  1. Dwayne LaGrou
    Lapeer, Michigan
    May 29, 2014, 7:05 pm

    STUNNING PHOTOGRAPHY !!! It never ceases to amaze me the wonders of the heavens. Such random beauty and amazing colors just begging to be gazed upon. It certainly makes you look at yourself and think, How many other beings are looking at the same patch of space and wondering if there are any other life forms looking at it at the same time. It really makes you feel small.
    Keep up the fantastic work Nat Geo Staff. Great job!!!

  2. Carl Parrish
    United States
    May 25, 2014, 10:45 pm

    God is awesome, He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names.there’s a lot more to be reveal, thanks Chile Observatory.

  3. Ima Ryma
    May 25, 2014, 5:18 am

    The Argo was the finest ship
    To ever have sailed sea from Greece,
    On a faraway foreign trip
    In a quest of the golden fleece.
    The mortal crew went with the aid
    Of gods and goddesses hands on.
    Argo had been divinely made,
    Surmounting evils come upon.
    And when the voyage and the quest
    Were completed successfully,
    The Argo by divine behest
    Was set to sail eternally.

    Through the night skies sails the Argo,
    Constellation in starry glow.

  4. Judy Larson
    United States
    May 24, 2014, 10:55 am

    Absolutely stunning what God is continuing to create in the Solar System. Thank you for sharing Chile Observatory, Beautful.