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Name: RCW120
Description: Emission Nebula
Constellation: Scorpius
Position (J2000): RA 17 12.4 Dec -38 28
Distance: 4500 light years
Image Credit: ESO/APEX/DSS2/ SuperCosmos/ (Deharveng/ Zavagno: LAM)
Release Date: November 11, 2008

Spitzer Image:     N11-07
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Illustrating the power of sub-millimeter-wavelength astronomy, an APEX image reveals how an expanding bubble of ionized gas about ten light-years across is causing the surrounding material to collapse into dense clumps that are the birthplaces of new stars. Sub-millimeter light is the key to revealing some of the coldest material in the Universe, such as these cold, dense clouds.

The region, called RCW120, is about 4200 light years from Earth, towards the constellation of Scorpius. A hot, massive star in its center is emitting huge amounts of ultraviolet radiation, which ionizes the surrounding gas, stripping the electrons from hydrogen atoms and producing the characteristic red glow of so-called H-alpha emission.

As this ionized region expands into space, the associated shock wave sweeps up a layer of the surrounding cold interstellar gas and cosmic dust. This layer becomes unstable and collapses under its own gravity into dense clumps, forming cold, dense clouds of hydrogen where new stars are born. However, as the clouds are still very cold, with temperatures of around -250° Celsius, their faint heat glow can only be seen at sub-millimeter wavelengths. Sub-millimeter light is therefore vital in studying the earliest stages of the birth and life of stars.

The sub-millimeter-wavelength data were taken with the LABOCA camera on the 12-m Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope, located on the 5000 m high plateau of Chajnantor in the Chilean Atacama desert. Thanks to LABOCA's high sensitivity, astronomers were able to detect clumps of cold gas four times fainter than previously possible. Since the brightness of the clumps is a measure of their mass, this also means that astronomers can now study the formation of less massive stars than they could before.

The plateau of Chajnantor is also where ESO, together with international partners, is building a next generation sub-millimeter telescope, ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/sub-millimeter Array. ALMA will use over sixty 12-m antennas, linked together over distances of more than 16 km, to form a single, giant telescope.

APEX is a collaboration between the Max-Planck-Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR), the Onsala Space Observatory (OSO) and ESO. The telescope is based on a prototype antenna constructed for the ALMA project. Operation of APEX at Chajnantor is entrusted to ESO.