This utterly stunning image is of a star-forming region in the Taurus Molecular Cloud, which is located about 450 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Taurus. The area is filled with intricate filaments of dense material, with each obscuring the light from newly-born, still embedded, stars. Here, one can see two specific regions in the cloud. The first distinct region is in the upper-right part of the filament, which extends more than 10 light-years in length; known as Barnard 211. The other, dubbed Barnard 213, can be seen in the lower-left hand portion of the image.
Both names come from a 20th-century astronomer named Edward Emerson Barnard, who argued that the overall look of this area – and similar T Tauri regions – is due to obscuring matter in space. Barnard went on to catalog various “dark markings of the sky,” which we now know as dark nebulae.
Interestingly (but not surprisingly), Barnard was correct! We now know that they are made up of lots of tiny little cosmic dust grains. They appear to have orange tones due, in part, to their keen ability to absorb visible light. They are also so cold (coming it at around -441 degrees Fahrenheit or -260 degrees Celsius), they are only visible at wavelengths much longer than visible light, so observations at millimeter or sub-millimeter wavelengths are needed to detect their faint glow. As seen in this particular image, their heat glow is superimposed on a visible light image of the region. These regions simply appear as dark dust lanes in visible light, without the light from the newborn stars blanketed in a cocoon of dense dust breaking through slightly.
The very bright star just above the filament is named φ Tauri, which is not a part of the filament itself. In fact, it’s much closer to us than it is to the filament. The other star – pictured in the left-hand edge of this image – is HD 27482, an orange-dwarf located about 702 light-years away.
Over the course of the next million years or so, many new stars will come to life here. Perhaps giving astronomers a chance to further study Barnard’s “dark markings of the sky.” In doing so, they will help increase of understanding of not only the stellar formation process of stars born behind thick blankets of obscuring dust, but the evolutionary process as well.