This Tarantula is definitely deadly

By Phil Plait | December 11, 2008 1:30 pm

If there were one place in the local Universe I would not want to be, it would be in the center of the Tarantula Nebula.

Chandra X-ray view of the Tarantula Nebula
Chandra’s X-Ray view of the Tarantula Nebula. Credit: NASA/CXC/Penn State/L.Townsley, et al.

This is a giant, vast, meganormous cloud of gas furiously churning out stars. It’s too huge to comprehend; it’s 800 light years across. For comparison, the nearby Orion Nebula is maybe 50 light years across, tops. So we’re talking monster gas cloud here. Happily, it’s 165,000 or so light years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a companion galaxy to the Milky Way.

Still, it gets scarier. When any star-forming cloud gets going, lots of massive stars get made. They live short lives then explode in titanic events called supernovae. The Tarantula has three huge bubbles inside it, cavities plowed up by exploding stars. Near the center of the cloud they have intersected, and there sits the cluster R136, another giant in its class. It has at least 200 massive stars, and who knows how many smaller ones, drowned out in the glare of their luminous brethren. A lot of the stars in R136 are gonna blow someday soon, too.

If you found yourself suddenly transported to the Tarantula, you’d be fried, battered, irradiated, vaporized, suffocated (of course: it’s still a pretty hard vacuum by Earth standards), and probably just pretty damn unhappy.

Those stars in R136 are flooding the gas cloud with X-rays, but it’s probably the long-dead supernovae that are lighting up the gas as seen in this Chandra X-ray Observatory image of the Tarantula. It’s the deepest X-ray image ever taken of the cloud, totaling 31 hours of exposure time. Scientists will plumb that data, looking for insight into how these massive stars formed, how the older ones died, and just what’s going on in this mind-numbingly violent region of space.

I wonder when the next star to detonate will let go in that cloud. When it does, it’ll be a cornucopia of science for astronomers. The cluster and cloud are too far away to hurt us, but the light show should be pretty cool to watch unfold.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures

Comments (22)

  1. TheElkMechanic

    Look! It’s the Virgin Mary! (But what’s she doing to that chicken?)

  2. Rowan Bulpit

    That is just too cool. And Elk, I think she is roasting the chicken.

  3. Andy Beaton

    Can we please rotate the earth from North to South? I’m sick of those bloody Australians having all the good stuff in their sky.

  4. Ben

    I thought it was a teddy bear riding a llama.

  5. JB of Brisbane

    When I think back to my brother’s Scientific American magazines in the late seventies, I remember X-ray images of astronomical objects which resembled the pixellated images of miscreants on TV who can’t be identified for some reason. When I see images such as the one above, I realise how far technology has come in thirty years.

  6. kuhnigget

    Dr. BA, or anyone else, would it ever come to pass that one supernova would trigger a chain reaction of other supernovae among the nearby stars? I realize it wouldn’t be an instantaneous reaction, given the distance the radiation must travel between even the closest stars, but still…one supernova after another within a few years, or decades even, would be pretty darn exciting.

  7. kuhnigget

    Oh, and BTW, Leo G. Carroll would be over a barrel if he knew about this….

  8. So what you’re saying is, this would be an excellent place to dump our garbage, once we’ve sorted out the trivial problem of transportation?

  9. Andy, I’m totally with you. One of my goals in life is to see Alpha Cenatauri with my own two eyes and go “There it is, the nearest star to the Sun”. Not too easy to do from Pittsburgh.

  10. GAZZA

    “If you found yourself suddenly transported to the Tarantula, you’d be fried, battered, irradiated, vaporized, suffocated (of course: it’s still a pretty hard vacuum by Earth standards), and probably just pretty damn unhappy.”

    Luxury.

    When I were a lad, we used to get transported to the centre of the Tarantula for 25 hours a day half an hour before we went to bed, drink a cup of cold neutronium, go to work in t’supernova and pay t’entropy for permission to increase, and when we came home we’d get quantum entangled with strange quarks.

    But if you tell the young stars that, they won’t believe you.

  11. Scary, maybe. Deadly, sure.

    But supposing you could survive the place (say, by having a convenient Earth-esque planet to stand on), even briefly, I bet it’d be beautiful.

  12. Ijon Tichy

    The Tarantula is a beautiful nebula through the small telescope — not quite as brilliant as the Carina nebula, though. As a teenager, I remember seeing SN1987A in the same field of view. A special memory.

  13. “Luxury.

    When I were a lad, we used to get transported to the centre of the Tarantula for 25 hours a day half an hour before we went to bed, drink a cup of cold neutronium, go to work in t’supernova and pay t’entropy for permission to increase, and when we came home we’d get quantum entangled with strange quarks.

    But if you tell the young stars that, they won’t believe you.”

    You were lucky. Why in my day, we were transported to the Medusa Cascade, put a second out of synch with the rest of the universe and bombarded with Z-Neutrino radiation until the matter of our bodies fell apart into nothing. And then you had to do it all over again in the afternoon.

  14. I didn’t know the four Yorkshiremen travelled so far ..! ;-)

    “You Luckkee bas-rds! Ewe Lukk-ee, luu-cckkee b—-rds!” ;-)

    I was about to say wasn’t Supernova 1987 A around the same area but Ijon Tichy has beaten me to it.

    So the Tarantula’s been X-rayed but which of its legs is broken? ;-)

  15. kuhnigget

    “luxury…”

    Well we had it tough! We used to get out of hypersleep at 10:00 UT, half an hour before we went to the pods, eat a megarad of radioactive isotope, go down to the center of the galaxy where we’d be spaghettified for 29 galactic rotations, and when we’d come home, the sun would go nova and vaporize us into atoms.

    If we were lucky!

  16. Jeffersonian

    Yow. This is just insane. And at 165,000 l.y. away, closer than I would have guessed.

    @Andy Beaton
    “Can we please rotate the earth from North to South? ”
    Let’s agree just do this on special occasions. I would soon grow tired of: toilets flushing the opposite direction, the dog bedding down the opposite way, my equinox egg falling in reverse the following day, and the negative horoscopic effect caused by the absence of Draco/the influence of the Southern Cross.

  17. DrFlimmer

    To “answer” kuhnigget’s question from above:

    I am not quite sure that a supernove could trigger another one. First, I think we have observed SN Ia’s and they used to have a companion star wich mostly survived the explosion (and he was REALLY close because his own matter was sucked in by the white dwarf that went SN. And to be able to do that the stars have really to be closed by). Second, a SN II (like SN 1987A) is a massive star with its core running out of fuel. The core collapses and the outer layers explode (the process is rather complicates as you might know). But to go SN the core HAS to stop the fusion. And a “nearby” SN won’t be able to do that, I guess.
    I would say: No, a SN cannot trigger another one, although that would be nice to observe, indeed. On the other hand, a SN triggers the creation of new stars – so, as always, some old things have to go for something new to come!

  18. Rob

    KevinF – you can do that without even leaving the US. Alpha Cen is visible from both Puerto Rico and Hawaii – both of which have other astronomical attractions as well.

    Kuhnigget: As I understand it, SN do not trigger other SN (at least not directly). However, the massive stars all live for very, very short periods of time (by stellar standards) – the more massive a star is, the shorter its lifetime. This means that when you’ve got lots of massive star formation, you get lots of SN. How one SN can indirectly trigger another is that the shock wave from a SN may also destabilize other nearby clouds (or sub-clouds, in this case), causing them to collapse, form massive stars, and go SN.

  19. IVAN3MAN

    @ DrFlimmer,

    I was going to respond to kuhnigget‘s question, but I decided not to bother because he is too preoccupied arguing with some UFO nutter on the “Aliens? Yes. UFOs? No.” thread. So, he will probably miss it, anyway.

  20. IVAN3MAN

    DrFlimmer:

    First, I think we have observed SN Ia’s and they used to have a companion star wich (sic) mostly survived the explosion (and he was REALLY close because his own matter was sucked in by the white dwarf that went SN.

    Er… “he”/”his”? I wasn’t aware that stars were gender-orientated. Do you know something that I don’t, DrFlimmer?

  21. DrFlimmer

    :-D

    Well, you must know, I knew one personally and had a great time with him before I was transported to the Crab Nebula for a ride atop the neutron star. I got very sick… if I had been lucky ;)

    Otherwise you are right and in this case I apologize ;)

  22. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    I wasn’t aware that stars were gender-orientated.

    But – they have balls?!

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