Look at This Rad-Ass Star Cluster
Image: ESO/G. Beccari

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Look at This Rad-Ass Star Cluster

The Football Cluster, also known as NGC 3532, has had a long and flirtatious relationship with humanity. Now, it’s showing its age.
November 26, 2014, 11:00am

​NGC 3532, a particularly bright cluster of stars, has had a long and flirtatious relationship with humanity that spans centuries. Now, we've captured the most vivid portrait of our old cosmic companion yet.

Known as "the Football Cluster" due to its oblong shape, NGC 3532 was first identified in 1752 by French astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille. A collage of vivid hues, the new photo depicts NGC 3532 showing its age—300 million years.

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Many of the cluster's larger stars have exhausted their hydrogen and are now beaming a soft, orange light across space, while many of its more moderately-sized stars are still showing signs of life with a vibrant bluish white. The giant stars that Lacaille first observed all those centuries ago in South Africa have surely exploded by now.

It's always a little bittersweet to catch up with an old friend, isn't it?

The most recent image of NGC 3532 comes from the La Silla O​bservatory in Chile, a facility built and operated by the European Southern Observatory, an international space research organization. It was taken in 2013 with the ESO's Wide Field ​Imager—a specialized camera—through the Zeiss-built MPG telescope. Since its construction in 1983, the MPG telescope has produced some truly stunning images o​f what hangs in the void.

NGC 3532 has been somewhat of an object of fascination throughout history, and not just for the ESO and Lacaille. The first photo ever taken ​by the Hubble Space Telescope on May 20th, 1990, featured the bright and storied cluster, and was instrumental in focusing the telescope during the early days of its deployment.

As beautiful and just a little tragic as NGC 3532's fading light may be, we don't really have much to worry about. Three hundred million years is a long time for us, but for a cluster of stars it's just about middle age.

Like a parent in their 40s buying a dirt bike and getting a tattoo, NGC 3532 is still totally young and its light will be with us for ages yet.