Spectacular VISTA of the Tarantula

By Phil Plait | August 11, 2010 10:31 am

Ever wanted to see a Tarantula up close? Up really close? Here’s your chance!

[Click to hugely enarachnidate, or grab the atomically-mutated, 130 Mb, 9000 x 12000 pixel megaspider version here. But be ye fairly warned, says I: you’ll lose your afternoon looking at it.]

That is a new image of the Tarantula Nebula (ha! Got you!) from the European Southern Observatory’s VISTA survey telescope in Chile. The telescope can see in the near-infrared, just outside the range of our human vision, and is being used to map a big chunk of the southern sky.

The Tarantula is a sprawling star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small companion galaxy to our own Milky Way Galaxy. Of course, "small" is a matter of perspective; the LMC is still tens of thousands of light years across and has several billion stars in it. From its distance of 180,000 light years, the LMC appears as a smudge in the sky to the unaided eyes of southern observers.

In astronomy terms the image above is huge; it covers a square degree of sky, several times the area of the full Moon! However, in real terms, if you lived in the southern hemisphere and went outside on a clear night, you could block out the entire region of the picture with the tip of one finger held at arm’s length.

But VISTA’s 4-meter mirror has fine vision, and the image is crammed with detail. It’s hard to see in the embedded image above because I had to compress it wildly to have any hope of letting y’all see it here. The higher-resolution images, however, are simply spectacular! Here’s a taste; I cropped out a small portion:

Wow! Mind you, this is from the medium resolution image! It’s a section to the right and a bit below the nebula proper. And while it’s crammed with stars, gas, and dust, I didn’t pick it randomly. It has one other object in it of note: Supernova 1987A, an exploded star whose light reached us on February 23, 1987. It was, for a few shining moments, among the brightest objects in the entire Universe… but now is lost in a sea of stars, in a small section of one image of a small galaxy.

The Tarantula Nebula is a forbidding object. It’s well over 600 light years across, has millions of times the Sun’s mass worth of gas jammed into it, and is forming stars so furiously that astronomers think it may actually be creating a globular cluster, a spherical ball of hundreds of thousands of stars. You may have heard of the Orion Nebula, one of the largest and brightest of all nebulae in the Milky Way. Well, the Tarantula is thousands of times more luminous; if it were as far away as the Orion Nebula, the Tarantula would be bright enough to cast shadows on the ground!

VISTA will eventually map out 184 square degrees of the sky, which is truly an enormous swath of the sky at this resolution. It will guide astronomers for years to come, giving us a highly-detailed and, yes, beautiful map of stars, galaxies, and nebulae… and best of all, stuff we’re not even aware of yet. Big surveys always help us piece things together, put the details into perspective.

But oh, sometimes, the details themselves are worth gawking at.

ESO/M.-R. Cioni/VISTA Magellanic Cloud survey. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

Related posts:

Hubble sees spectacular star birth and death
The Orion VISTA
Incredible VISTA of the cosmos
Touring the Tarantula
This Tarantula is definitely deadly

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (23)

  1. Messier Tidy Upper

    Wow. Magnificent. :-)

    That is one – or rather two – superluminous (beyond merely brilliant) images.

    BTW. Have there been any observational developments or theories when it comes to the apparent absence of any pulsar / neutron star remnant at the core of SN 1987 A?

  2. John Baxter

    Actually, I have seen tarantulas close up, during my first summer at Fort Huachuca (1963). Once assured that the Arizona variety is non-poisonous (but if annoyed enough can take quite a nip out of a human), I enjoyed them. They routinely climbed onto boot toes. They seemed to enjoy crawling onto a hand then being lifted and stroked.

    Second summer: none.

  3. Gary Miles

    Phil, not sure that you have seen this yet but its hilarious and disturbing at the same time. Mentioned by the Talking Points Memo and the Rachel Maddow Show, Conservapedia has this to say about Einstein’s Theory of Relavity: “Counterexamples to Relativity” published by Andrew Schafly, son of Phyllis Schafly. Be warned its pretty wacky.

  4. Bouch

    The sheer number of stars in that image is mindboggling. “Billions and billions” doesn’t seem to begin to describe it…

    @3 – Gary Miles
    I found this quote interesting: “The only device based on relativity is the atom bomb, but that has destroyed far more lives than it’s saved so it can hardly be considered useful.”

  5. bigjohn756

    Please, don’t bother me for a couple of hours. I am going to count all of the stars in this picture. WOW!

  6. Gary Miles

    And if that is not enough, try reading the Conservapedia entry for Theory of relativity. Sigh.

  7. Gary Miles

    @4 – Bouch
    That isnt the only interesting stuff you will find. Check out the references to the Bible. Sheer lunacy of rejecting the theory of relativity because it doesn’t square with the Christian doctrine is beyond appalling.

    My simple reaction was: WTF! over and over again.

  8. Tim

    It was, for a few shining moments, among the brightest objects in the entire Universe…

    Something nice to think about… Somewhere, 23 light years in the opposite direction from us, it still is among the brightest objects in the universe. Well, in fact, the sphere around Supernova 1987A that is 23 light years more than the distance from us to it would be experiencing that.

    I’m not trying to correct Phil in any way. I just love the “time travel” aspect of viewing things in the sky.

  9. Navneeth

    Phil, I was eagerly expecting your waxing poetic about NGC 4911 from the Hubble. Did you look at the galaxies in the background in that 28-hour exposure?

    HOLIEST That-Hawaiian-sounding-word-you-say!

  10. Jan

    As always, Phil, your enthusiasm is a delight.

    Today’s giddiness, however, has me suspecting you were up all night overdosing on Perseids, Aurora, or both.

    Fog here last night. I’m heading to bed midafternoon hoping for a glorious clear night tonight.

    And if there’s more fog, I have your post from today for comfort instead. Thanks!

  11. WJM

    if it were as far away as the Orion Nebula, the Tarantula would be bright enough to cast shadows on the ground!

    Just imagine if it were as CLOSE as the Orion Nebula!

  12. Nigel Depledge

    Beee- yooo- tiful!

    * Gawk *

  13. jcm

    Now who says that science robs nature of its beauty.

  14. Brian Short

    @Navneeth Haleakala? It’s the 10,000 ft. mountain in Maui. Great place to watch the sun rise.

    Beautiful photos – “My God. It’s full of stars!”

  15. cantech


    I understand and appreciate Phils comments about respecting some peoples viewpoint. But some people are just bats**t. I’m sorry.

  16. Felix

    “…. it covers a square degree of sky, several times the area of the full Moon! However …. you could block out the entire region of the picture with the tip of one finger held at arm’s length.”

    That sounds contradictory. Does everyone else just have bigger fingers than me?

  17. Maria

    *sobs* why did someone have to bring up conservopedia, and why did I have to click that link. … so depressed now.

    No! No more depression caused by internet links. Back to the wonder of stars!

    “if it were as far away as the Orion Nebula, the Tarantula would be bright enough to cast shadows on the ground!” That made me smile. I can almost hear that being said in a voice bursting with unrestrained genuine enthusiasm. It is an awesome thing.

  18. Tom

    I am very grateful that I get to see such inspiring images, thank you.


    @ Maria,

    Here’s an antidote to Conservapedia. ;-)

  20. Terry

    The heavens declare the glory of physical processes!

  21. Robert Arrington


    Dr. Phil Plait, neologist extraordinaire!


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