Dark Molecular Cloud
PR Photo 20a/99 shows an unusual sky field in the Milky Way band. It is centred on one of the classical, dark globules, known as Barnard 68 (B68) after the American astronomer, Edward E. Barnard (1857 - 1923), who included it in a list of such objects, published in 1919. It appears as a compact, opaque and rather sharply defined object against a rich, background star field. Even on this image that registers many faint stars in the area, not a single foreground star is observed. This is a clear sign that this globule must be relatively nearby. It has a diameter of only 7 light-months (approx. 0.2 pc) and it is located at a distance of about 500 light-years (160 pc) towards the southern constellation Ophiuchus (The Serpent-holder).
Interstellar clouds consist of gas and dust, including many molecules, some of which contain carbon atoms (i.e. "organic"). For a long time considered to be "holes in the sky", molecular clouds are now known to be among the coolest objects in the Universe (the temperature is approx. 10 K, or -263 °C). Moreover, and most importantly, they are nurseries of stars and planets.
It still remains a mystery how a dark cloud like Barnard 68 at some moment begins to contract and subsequently transforms itself into hydrogen-burning stars. However, deep images of these clouds, such as this one obtained by FORS1 on VLT ANTU, may provide important clues. This small cloud seems to be in its very earliest phase of collapse.
This three-colour composite was reproduced from one blue (B), one green-yellow (V) and one near-infrared (I) exposure that were obtained with VLT ANTU and FORS1 in the early morning of March 27, 1999. The field measures 6.8x6.8 arcmin2.
It's possible to see through the cloud in the far infrared using filters J- (wavelength 1.25 µm; shown as "blue"), H- (1.65 µm; shown as green) and Ks-filters (2.16 µm; shown as red).