Deep in the heart of the southern Milky Way lies a stellar nursery known as the Carina Nebula - located 7500 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Carina (The Keel).
The cloud of glowing gas and dust is one of the closest incubators of very massive stars and includes several of the brightest and heaviest, such as Eta Carinae, a mysterious and highly unstable star.
Eta Carinae was the second brightest star in the entire night sky for several years in the 1840s and is likely to explode as a supernova in the near future. As such, it remains the perfect laboratory for astronomers studying the violent births and early lives of stars.
Although this nebula is spectacular in normal visible-light pictures, many of its secrets are concealed behind thick clouds of dust. To penetrate this veil, a European team of astronomers, led by Thomas Preibisch (University Observatory, Munich, Germany) deployed the ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT) along with the HAWK-I, an infrared-sensitive camera.
Hundreds of individual images were combined to create the picture above, which is the most detailed infrared mosaic of the nebula ever taken - and one of the most dramatic images created by the VLT. It shows not just the brilliant massive stars, but hundreds of thousands of fainter stars that were previously invisible.
The dazzling star Eta Carinae itself appears at the lower left of the new picture. It is surrounded by clouds of gas that glow under the onslaught of fierce ultraviolet radiation. Across the image there are also many compact blobs of dark material that remain opaque, even in infrared. Essentially, these are the dusty cocoons in which new stars are forming.
Over the last few million years, this region of the sky has formed large numbers of stars, both individually and in clusters. The bright star cluster close to the center of the picture is known as Trumpler 14. Although this object is seen well in visible light, numerous fainter stars can be seen in this infrared view. Towards the left side of the image, a small concentration of stars that appear yellow can also be observed.