eso9411 — Science Release
Omega Centauri: Big, Bright and Beautiful
27 May 1994: Far down in the southern sky, in the constellation of Centaurus, a diffuse spot of light can be perceived with the unaided eye. It may be unimpressive, but when seen through a telescope, it turns out to be a beautiful, dense cluster of innumerable stars . Omega Centauri, as this object is called, is the brightest of its type in the sky. We refer to it as a "globular cluster", due to its symmetric form. It belongs to our Milky Way galaxy and astrophysical investigations have shown that it is located at a distance of about 16,500 light-years (1 light-year = 9,460,000,000,000 km). Nobody knows for sure how many individual stars it contains, but recent estimates run into the millions. Most of these stars are more than 10,000 million years old and it is generally agreed that Omega Centauri has a similar age. Measurements of its motion indicate that Omega Centauri plows through the Milky Way in an elongated orbit. It is not easy to understand how it has managed to keep its stars together during such an extended period.