Around 7,500 light-years from Earth, in the Carina (The Keel) constellation, lies a loosely-bound collection of stars that are as beautiful as they are useful. As observed by the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile, the open star cluster NGC 3590 shines like glitter over the multicolored background of dust, gas and background stars, and astronomers are using it to learn more about the structure and evolution of the Milky Way's spiral arms.
ANALYSIS: Seeing the Milky Way Spiral in a Coffee Cup
As our solar system is embedded inside the galaxy, it can be hard to appreciate its structure - it can, quite literally, be hard to see the wood (galaxy) for the trees (stars). Therefore star clusters like NGC 3590, which is located in the Carina spiral feature, are important tracers for astronomers to use as galactic ‘landmarks.' Our galaxy's spiral arms are piled-up regions of dense gas that trigger intense periods of star formation, leaving star clusters in their wake. Astronomers know that the stars in NGC 3590 are around 35 million years old, artifacts of star formation inside the Carina spiral, and valuable studies can be done on these stars (that are all roughly the same age) to understand how our galaxy evolved.