Which bright spark knocked over the inkwell?

Image copyright EUROPEAN SOUTHERN OBSERVATORY
Image caption Wide-field view of the Lupus 3 dark cloud and associated hot young stars

A new image from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) provides a remarkable insight into star formation.

It looks like a smear of clumsily spilt black ink, or perhaps (for the more romantically minded), a rip in the star-studded cloak of the cosmos.

But look a little closer - as the European Southern Observatory's 2.2 metre MPG telescope at La Silla in Chile has done - and a striking image of an immense swirling cloud of interstellar dust and gas begins to emerge.

Known as Lupus 3 this dense dark cloud lies some 600 light years from earth in the constellation Scorpius. And just to give you some idea of its size the main V-shaped splodge to the left of the central cluster of bright stars is some five light-years across.

Still waters run deep however, and far from indicating a lack of activity this black and apparently empty patch of the night sky hides a maelstrom of star forming activity.

Image copyright EUROPEAN SOUTHERN OBSERVATORY
Image caption The 'inkwell' in greater detail

Behind the scenes, dense swirls of cold dark dust are clumping together, heating up and beginning to shine as they condense under the force of gravity. Viewed at longer wavelengths, and in the infrared, Lupus 3 shines like a torch, but it's not until the stars get hotter and brighter - clearing the clouds around them as the cluster of brilliant blue stars in the centre have done - that they emerge in all their glory.

There's more to Lupus 3, and star formation, than meets the eye.