What you’ll discover in this blog post:
  • What some of the more unusually named astronomical objects in the night sky are called and how they got their names
  • How ESO telescopes are studying these objects to find out more about them
ESO’s many telescopes at La Silla and Paranal Observatories in Chile gaze up at thousands of astronomical objects every year. Before astronomers catalogued these objects with names such as NGC 6334, many of these nebulae and galaxies were given interesting nicknames based on their appearance by their discoverers, amateur astronomers or the public. Many of these objects have been revisited by ESO telescopes, to discover more about their formation and what lies within them. This blog post explores some of the more unusually named objects, seen in exquisite detail by ESO’s telescopes. You too can spot most of these objects from the Southern hemisphere with a small telescope or binoculars.

The Running Chicken Nebula

The Running Chicken Nebula, IC2944, is said to get its comic name from the arching wings of the nebula’s bright regions which stretch from its centre, 6500 light-years from Earth. The hot, newborn stars that formed in this stellar nursery shine bright in ultraviolet light, exciting the surrounding hydrogen cloud, seen in this image as a distinctive red glow. The vast red swathes of nebula, located in the constellation Centaurus, cover the size of a full moon and were imaged with the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory.

The Jewel Box cluster

The dazzling Jewel Box cluster, or NGC 4755, lies approximately 6400 light-years away and can be seen in the Southern Cross constellation. Its name has stuck from John Herschel's description in the 1830s, as a “casket of variously coloured precious stones,” which to Herschel and many others “give it the effect of a superb piece of fancy jewellery”.

The whole Jewel Box cluster of approximately 100 stars can be seen in the image on the left taken with the Wide Field Imager (WFI) on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the La Silla Observatory. The image on the right shows a zoomed in view from the FORS1 instrument on the VLT at Paranal Observatory. Stars in open clusters like the Jewel Box all formed together from the same cloud of gas and dust, so they have similar chemical make-up and ages, making them ideal laboratories to study how stars evolve.

The Cat’s Paw and Lobster Nebulae

The cat’s paw swipes towards the lobster in this beautiful image of the two nebulae: the Cat’s Paw Nebula, NGC 6334, is in the upper right corner and the Lobster Nebula, NGC 6357, in the lower left.
Located in the constellation Scorpius, these two nebulae act as large stellar nurseries, where many new stars form in these enormous clouds of gas and dust.

The three padded toes of the bottom of the cat’s paw are actually three circular globules of gas around 5500 light-years from Earth. The lobster nebula, some 8000 light-years away, is harder to make out but its bright claw, composed of flowing gas and dust, is mostly visible. These nebulae were captured in exquisite detail in one of the largest images ever released by ESO. This image was taken by the 256-megapixel OmegaCAM camera on the Very Large Telescope Survey Telescope (VST) at Paranal Observatory.

The Phantom Galaxy

The swirling ghostly spiral arms of the Phantom Galaxy, also known as NGC 628, are beautiful, but one bright star-like object on the outer arm steals the show. Located in the lower left of the image, this supernova resembles a bright white star, but it only burned brightly for a couple of months before fading into obscurity. Located in the constellation Pisces and around 23 million light-years from Earth, the Phantom Galaxy was imaged with the New Technology Telescope (NTT) at ESO’s La Silla Observatory as part of the PESSTO survey, to capture objects which appear only briefly in the night sky.

Thor’s Helmet Nebula

This close up image of the colourful Thor’s Helmet nebula, NGC 2359, was taken to celebrate ESO’s 50th Anniversary in 2012. The wisps of red gas extend upwards like horns on a Viking’s helmet, either side of the nebula’s blue domed centre which is 15,000 light-years from Earth. Located in Canis Major, the image was captured by the FORS2 instrument on the Very Large Telescope (VLT) at Paranal Observatory, with the help of Brigitte Bailleul, the winner of the Tweet Your Way to the VLT! competition.

The Wild Duck Cluster

Containing hundreds of stars, the Wild Duck Cluster, or NGC 6705, sits in the Scutum constellation (the Shield). Its inner stars are said to resemble the V-shaped pattern of a flock of ducks flying across the sky. The close grouping of inner stars in the open cluster appear blue as these stars are hot and young. This open cluster, lying 6000 light-years away, is one of the most compact and most massive known and has been extensively studied. The image was taken with the Wide Field Imager (WFI) on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at La Silla Observatory.

The Toby Jug Nebula

This rare reflection nebula known as the Toby Jug Nebula, or IC 2220, is illuminated from behind by a red giant star five times more massive than the Sun but many times larger. The nebula is created by the ageing red giant as part of its mass is ejected into the surrounding space, cools, and forms a cloud of gas and dust spanning one light-year. We see the nebula as the star’s light is reflected off the grains of dust, most likely silica.

Located 1200 light-years from us in the heart of the Milky Way, its namesake is a giant drinking jug or cup. The image of the nebula, which is in the Carinae constellation, was taken with the FORS1 instrument on the Very Large Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory.

Many strange and oddly named objects in our sky continue to be places for scientific research with ESO telescopes. Check out the ESO image archive and hear more about the latest discoveries by checking our news page and following us on social media.

Stephanie Rowlands

Numbers in this article

1 The size of the Toby Jug nebula (in light-years)
2.2 The diameter of the primary mirror of the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope (in metres)
3.6 The diameter of the primary mirror of the New Technology Telescope (in metres)
8.2 The diameter of the primary mirror of on of the VLT's Unit Telescopes (in metres)
256 The size of images taken by the OmegaCAM camera (in megapixels)
2012 The year the Thor’s Helmet nebula image was taken as part of celebrations of ESO’s 50th anniversary
1830s The decade when Herschel observed the Jewel Box cluster

Biography Stephanie Rowlands

Steph is one of our science communication interns here at ESO. While completing her undergraduate degree in physics at Swinburne University and volunteering in amateur astronomy outreach at Mount Burnett Observatory, she has her sights set on completing a PhD in Astrophysics.