The picture above is of the Taurus Molecular Cloud, located in (you guessed it) the constellation of Taurus, around 450 light-years away from our little blue marble. The image was taken by the APEX telescope in Chili, capturing a ribbon of gas and dust almost ten light-years long. To the naked eye, these clouds of dust simply appear as dark patches in the sky, blocking out astronomers’ view of the stars beyond. The dust grains making up the cloud are incredibly cold, around -260 degrees Celsius, so it takes very sensitive equipment to capture an image of them. Here, the faint glow from the dust’s heat is shaded orange, making for a pretty snazzy wallpaper if you ask me.
The two parts of the cloud pictured are named Barnard 211 and Barnard 213. They take their name from astronomer Edward Emerson Barnard, who compiled a photographic atlas of these “dark markings of the sky” in the early 20th century, and also correctly speculated that their appearance was due to “obscuring matter in space”.
Aside from being another piece of beautiful cosmic scenery, the Taurus Molecular Cloud is one of the regions closest to Earth where star formation is currently happening. There are newborn stars hidden behind that curtain of dust, and more in the process of forming. As the European Southern Observatory’s story explains:
When the clouds collapse under their own gravity, they fragment into clumps. Within these clumps, dense cores may form, in which the hydrogen gas becomes dense and hot enough to start fusion reactions: a new star is born. The birth of the star is therefore surrounded by a cocoon of dense dust, blocking observations at visible wavelengths. This is why observations at longer wavelengths, such as the millimetre range, are essential for understanding the early stages of star formation.
The bright star to the left of the cloud is φ Tauri, which is actually closer to us than the cloud itself. You can see a larger version of the header image below, as well as another shot from the APEX telescope.