Astronomers have taken a striking new photo with the Hubble space telescope to mark the instrument's 20th anniversary. They turned the powerful eye in the sky on to a cloud of gas and dust where new stars are being born.
But the startling result, which they dubbed the Mystic Mountain, looks like something dreamed up for a Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings movie. The totally alien starscape is certain to become as iconic an image as Hubble's previous most famous image - the finger-like Pillars of Creation (below).
Previously known to amateur astronomers as the Eta Carinae Nebula, it has been simply rebranded the Carina Nebula by the Hubble team.
Towers of cool hydrogen laced with dust rise from the wall of the nebula. The image captures the top of a pillar of gas and dust, three light-years tall, which is being eaten away by the brilliant light from nearby bright stars.
The pillar is also being pushed apart from within, as infant stars buried inside it fire off jets of gas that can be seen streaming from towering peaks like arrows sailing through the air.
Since it was launched in April 1990, Hubble has looked at more than 30,000 celestial targets and taken more than half a million photos. A risky visit by shuttle astronauts to service the telescope last May made Hubble 100 times more powerful than when it was launched.
Truly Hubble has been the greatest ambassador for astronomy, bringing the wonders of the universe to a wide public. It has overcome obstacles like a mis-shapen main mirror and equipment breakdowns to produce images of planets, stars and galaxies at the edge of the universe that just take your breath away, while carrying out vast amounts of real science too.
Picture credit: NASA, ESA, and M. Livio and the Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STScI).
* Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania's advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.