News Release

New 1.5-billion-pixel ESO image shows Running Chicken Nebula in unprecedented detail

Reports and Proceedings


The Running Chicken Nebula


The Running Chicken Nebula comprises several clouds, all of which we can see in this vast image from the VLT Survey Telescope (VST), hosted at ESO’s Paranal site. This 1.5-billion pixel image spans an area in the sky of about 25 full Moons. The clouds shown in wispy pink plumes are full of gas and dust, illuminated by the young and hot stars within them.

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Credit: ESO/VPHAS+ team. Acknowledgement: CASU

While many holiday traditions involve feasts of turkey, soba noodles, latkes or Pan de Pascua, this year, the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is bringing you a holiday chicken. The so-called Running Chicken Nebula, home to young stars in the making, is revealed in spectacular detail in this 1.5-billion-pixel image captured by the VLT Survey Telescope (VST), hosted at ESO’s Paranal site in Chile.

This vast stellar nursery is located in the constellation Centaurus (the Centaur), at about 6500 light-years from Earth. Young stars within this nebula emit intense radiation that makes the surrounding hydrogen gas glow in shades of pink.

The Running Chicken Nebula actually comprises several regions, all of which we can see in this vast image that spans an area in the sky of about 25 full Moons [1]. The brightest region within the nebula is called IC 2948, where some people see the chicken’s head and others its rear end. The wispy pastel contours are ethereal plumes of gas and dust. Towards the centre of the image, marked by the bright, vertical, almost pillar-like, structure, is IC 2944. The brightest twinkle in this particular region is Lambda Centauri, a star visible to the naked eye that is much closer to us than the nebula itself.

There are, however, many young stars within IC 2948 and IC 2944 themselves — and while they might be bright, they’re most certainly not merry. As they spit out vast amounts of radiation, they carve up their environment much like, well, a chicken. Some regions of the nebula, known as Bok globules, can withstand the fierce bombardment from the ultraviolet radiation pervading this region. If you zoom in to the image, you might see them: small, dark, and dense pockets of dust and gas dotted across the nebula.

Other regions pictured here include, to the upper right, Gum 39 and 40, and to the lower right, Gum 41. Aside from nebulae, there are countless orange, white and blue stars, like fireworks in the sky. Overall in this image, there are more wonders than can be described — zoom in and pan across, and you’ll have a feast for the eyes.

This image is a large mosaic comprising hundreds of separate frames carefully stitched together. The individual images were taken through filters that let through light of different colours, which were then combined into the final result presented here. The observations were conducted with the wide-field camera OmegaCAM on the VST, a telescope owned by the National Institute for Astrophysics in Italy (INAF) and hosted by ESO at its Paranal site in Chile’s Atacama Desert that is ideally suited for mapping the southern sky in visible light. The data that went into making this mosaic were taken as part of the VST Photometric Hα Survey of the Southern Galactic Plane and Bulge (VPHAS+), a project aimed at better understanding the life cycle of stars.


[1] This image, edge to edge, is 270 light-years wide. It would take an average chicken almost 21 billion years to run across it. That’s much longer than our Universe has been around for.

More information

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) enables scientists worldwide to discover the secrets of the Universe for the benefit of all. We design, build and operate world-class observatories on the ground — which astronomers use to tackle exciting questions and spread the fascination of astronomy — and promote international collaboration for astronomy. Established as an intergovernmental organisation in 1962, today ESO is supported by 16 Member States (Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom), along with the host state of Chile and with Australia as a Strategic Partner. ESO’s headquarters and its visitor centre and planetarium, the ESO Supernova, are located close to Munich in Germany, while the Chilean Atacama Desert, a marvellous place with unique conditions to observe the sky, hosts our telescopes. ESO operates three observing sites: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope and its Very Large Telescope Interferometer, as well as survey telescopes such as VISTA. Also at Paranal ESO will host and operate the Cherenkov Telescope Array South, the world’s largest and most sensitive gamma-ray observatory. Together with international partners, ESO operates ALMA on Chajnantor, a facility that observes the skies in the millimetre and submillimetre range. At Cerro Armazones, near Paranal, we are building “the world’s biggest eye on the sky” — ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope. From our offices in Santiago, Chile we support our operations in the country and engage with Chilean partners and society. 



Juan Carlos Muñoz Mateos
ESO Media Officer
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6176

Bárbara Ferreira
ESO Media Manager
Garching bei München, Germany
Tel: +49 89 3200 6670
Cell: +49 151 241 664 00

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