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The Black Clouds of Space Bring Life to the Universe

Astronomers in Chile just observed fresh images of Lupus 4, over 400 light-years away from Earth
September 3, 2014, 12:30pm

Many of us look to the sky and try to see past it, drawing some imaginary line between Earth and some other very-far-away version of Earth, another white/blue sphere poking a hole in the black background.

It seems we're less inspired by the black background itself, consisting of things like Lupus 4, a collection of dark clouds that mingle with the constellations Lupus ("The Wolf") and Norma ("The Carpenter's Square"). First discovered in 1927, astronomers are still trying to understand the clouds of Lupus 4, nearly a century later. That's perhaps what makes the above photo, captured by the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile and released this morning, so sublime.

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It calls to mind one of the better chills in alien sci-fi, astrophysicist Fred Hoyle's novel The Black Cloud. There's nothing gross, no lasers or mind-control, not even a spaceship. For that matter, depending on the reader's interpretation, there might not even be an alien. The threatening force? You guessed it, a big black cloud.

Photo of the La Silla observatory in Chile. Image: European Southern Observatory

Discovered by accident one night by a student astronomer, The Black Cloud's black cloud's startlingly quick approach is charted less by direct observations than by disappearances. (I actually learned about Hoyle's book in an interview several years back with outgoing SETI director Jill Tarter, who is a fan of the novel in part because it seems like a more reasonable alien story than most others, with its ambiguous unknowability.) As the cloud approaches, more stars leave the night sky, replaced by inky nothingness.

But the cool thing about Lupus 4—the nearest cosmic clouds to our own Solar System, the discovery of which predate Hoyle's novel by several decades—is that it's not destroying anything. Its dark clouds might look creepy as all hell up there blotting out the stars. But it actually exists to create stars.

The Lupus 4 cloud seen above has so far yielded only a few T Tauris, adolescent stars still in the process of gathering up stellar dust from their cloud surroundings and contracting under their own gravitational pull. They have a lot of energy, but it's all gravitational at this point; T Tauri stars aren't yet dense enough to begin hydrogen fusion, the reaction that fuels main sequence stars like our Sun.

Lupus 4's neighboring cloud cluster, Lupus 3 (below), has been a bit more productive so far, revealing about 40 adolescent stars on the verge of lighting their own fusion furnaces. Nonetheless, the dense, starless core of Lupus 4 promises abundant offspring. One estimate puts its total mass at about 1,600 times that of our own Sun—which portends a very bright future for a very dark place.

Lupus 3. Image: European Southern Observatory

As in the movie/novel Contact, which is largely based on Tarter's work, The Black Cloud understands that contact is still subject to human understanding, human resources, and human will. Contact acquires only the meaning that we as humans are capable of giving it. Nothing more.

This is just kind of how it works in the universe: dark clouds, the likes of Lupus 4's, give birth to bright stars. That's where we came from, anyhow. Or, that's where our Sun came from. It might look an awful lot like the universe is on an irreversible path toward an eternal future as an energy-less void, but it's worth taking a good look at where we even started: a black cloud.