Van Gogh's starry night comes alive in deep space

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The Independent Online

Swirls of interstellar dust captured by the Hubble space telescope have provided astronomers with a stunning colour picture reminiscent of Vincent Van Gogh's painting A Starry Night .

Van Gogh painted his vision of a raging sky from memory in 1889, because he thought it would add to the value of the painting. At the time, he was in a mental asylum in Saint-Rémy de Provence after he cut off his ear. He wrote: "We may succeed in creating a more exciting and comforting nature than we can discern with a single glimpse of reality."

But this real starry night comes from observation of a region of space some 20 light years away. The trails and spirals of dust cover billions of miles of interstellar space as they form visually spectacular eddies and swirls similar to the movements of Van Gogh's brush over the Starry Night canvas.

The Hubble telescope - a project by the US space agency Nasa and the European Space Agency - photographed the expanding halo of dust around a distant star called V838 Monocerotis, on the outer edge of the Milky Way.

A gigantic explosion from a supergiant star in the middle of the image, first observed in January 2002, gave off a flashlight-like pulse of light which has illuminated the otherwise invisible dust clouds in the void of interstellar space.

This dust was probably emitted from the same stellar source some 10,000 years ago in a similar explosive event, creating a field of dust and debris that continues to expand at the speed of light from the centre of the blast. Swirls and eddies seen within the clouds are probably caused by turbulence within the fields of dust as they expand through space, scientists working with the Hubble telescope said.

"During the outburst event, the normally faint star suddenly brightened, becoming 600,000 times more luminous than our sun," a Hubble spokesman said. "It was one of the most luminous stars in the Milky Way, until it faded back in April 2002."

Explosions caused by supernovae, which suddenly increase in brightness because of thermonuclear chain reactions on the surface of stars, are not unusual, the spokesman added. But the nature of this explosion, particularly its deep red colour, is different.

Astronomers expect the echoes of the explosion will remain visible for at least the rest of the decade, creating a natural piece of performance art caused by the dust changing its appearance as it continues to propagate further into interstellar space.

The image released yesterday is composed of three exposures taken through blue, green and near-infrared filters.

Nasa announced last month that it does not intend to service Hubble with a future shuttle mission, a decision that will prematurely end the space telescope's working life.