Astronomers from the European Southern Observatory have released a spectacular image showing what appears to be vast, billowing clouds of black smoke set against a backdrop of countless dazzling stars.

In fact, these 'black clouds' are so-called 'dark nebulae' – huge clouds of cold gas and dust particles that are so dense, they absorb or scatter most light as it passes through, leading to the black appearance.

Dark nebulae differ from other nebulae, which are often spectacularly illuminated by the intense radiation of hot stars.

The dark nebulae, known as Lupus 3, is located 600 light years from Earth within the constellation Scorpius, near the centre of the Milky Way. Like most dark nebulae, it is an active star-forming region that includes many young stars. Indeed, it is one of the closest stellar nurseries to our planet.

In these regions, denser collections of material can clump together due to gravity, becoming hot and pressurised in the process and giving rise to a proto-star – the earliest stage of star formation.

In the centre of the image are two incredibly bright, young stars formed by this very process. In fact, they are so young that nuclear fusion reactions – of the kind that power older stars – have not yet begun inside their cores.

They appear bright because their turbulent cores are contracting, turning gravitational energy into heat. This process creates intense radiation and stellar winds which have cleared the surrounding areas of dust, making them more visible.

Scientists can learn a great deal by investigating nebulae, especially with regards to the process of star formation. In fact, our own Sun is thought to have formed in a region much like Lupus 3 more than 4 billion years ago.