A Nebula Illuminated By Its Missing Stars

In a sky so full of stars it’s often difficult to figure out where constellations are, one dark spot stands out: The Coalsack Nebula. Parked near one of the five brightest stars comprising the Southern Cross – perhaps the most easily spotted asterism in the southern sky – the nebula looks like an inky black thumbprint.

Where it hangs, the stars struggle to shine. It’s as if someone outlined a portion of the sky and dimmed the lights. What’s really going on with the Coalsack? About 600 light-years away, it’s one of the most prominent dark nebulas, a cloud of water, gases and organic molecules so thick it blots out most starlight. The light that manages to get through is a bit bent toward the reddish, as shown in a new photo from the European Southern Observatory.

For all its current doom and gloom, the Coalsack is not destined for a lifetime of obliteration. In millions of years, scientists say, those dark clouds will burn with the fury of newly born stars, ignited by the crush of gravity.

It’s a little ironic, when you think about it. We’re so often distracted by the shiny things – the stars, the obvious questions, the low-hanging fruit. But when we really pay attention, a lot of the important stuff emerges from absence. It’s a deceptive emptiness, though. Truths and lies are revealed by silence, beauty lives in the negative spaces carved by all the clamor and clutter. Here, the Coalsack is illuminated by the absence of stars. Too often, we study what’s right in front of us instead of probing what’s not.

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