Over the past few months I’ve written about various nebulae that are busily forming stars. Orion is a great one, NGC 604 in the Triangulum Galaxy is another. But in nearby space, the great grand-daddy of them all is the vast, sprawling Tarantula Nebula. Located 170,000 light years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud — a satellite galaxy to our Milky Way — it is churning out stars at a mind-numbing rate. Astronomers pointed Hubble into its heart (it’s far too big to be seen all at once by Hubble) and got quite an eye full:
Holy Haleakala! That’s gorgeous!
[Click to arachnidate, or get the 3868 x 3952 pixel version. And yeah, you want a bigger one; I had to compress the picture to display it here, and the bigger ones are really something.]
This area is a mess. The gas and dust are obvious enough, as are the great number of stars littering that volume of space. Quite a few of the stars you see there are newborns. But note the tendrils and filaments of gas to the left of center, and to a lesser extent to the upper right. Those are the shock-wave compressed sheets of gas from a supernova, a star that exploded right in the center of all that. A massive star must have formed here, lived out its short life, and detonated. The debris expanded at thousands of kilometers per second, slamming into and compressing the gas. It wouldn’t surprise me if this expanding debris helped collapse more gas at its outer edges, helping more stars get born.
It’s the circle of life, or I guess, in this case, it’s the spherical shell of life.
To say this region is vast is seriously underestimating it. Astronomers are actually arguing not that it’s forming stars, but that it may be forming a nascent globular cluster, a collection of hundreds of thousands or even million of stars!
Mind you, the Tarantula is easily visible using just binoculars; I saw it myself when I visited Australia a few years ago. That flight to Oz was an uncomfortable 14 hours long, and I traveled about 12,000 kilometers. The light from the Tarantula had a bit of a tougher trip: it traveled 1,700,000,000,000,000,000 km to reach my eye, almost two quintillion kilometers!
I will never complain about a long flight again*.
Image credit: NASA, ESA
* Yes I will. I’m no photon.