Arachnophilia

By Phil Plait | March 15, 2011 6:00 am

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.


Related posts:

- Hubble sees baby stars eating sandwiches and blowing bubbles
- A new view of an old friend
- A delicately violent celestial shell game
- A WISE view of a small neighbor

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (18)

  1. Yes I will. I’m no photon.

    Well, at least those photons didn’t end up like poor Sam: http://www.stonemakerargument.com/4.html

  2. That is one stunning image! Am I right in thinking the greenish bits are oxygen?

  3. DrBB

    Soooooo kewl. I visited New Zealand a few years back, my first trip to the southern hemisphere, and one of the things I was most excited about was getting to view the sky. We were there in late August-early September and Orion was visible, but upside down. Never did get used to that. Main thing I wanted to see was the Magellanics though. We were RV’ing around the South Island and up in the mountains a lot of the time so the sky views were spectacular. Even allowing for that I think our sub-equatorial friends get the better half of the bargain for naked-eye star gazing.

    Question: when you speak of the shear number of stars visible in this area I get a little flummoxed because I assume some of the ones we’re looking at here are intervening stars located in the Milky Way proper, not the LMC. You probably make the visual distinction instinctively, being used to looking at these things way more frequently, but it might be nice for the non-professionals out here to have some guidance in that area. Am I correct to assume those really bright ones are interveners or am I wrong about that?

  4. Diederick

    I wonder why it’s called after the Tarantula, the mythycal spider that would make you dance until you died.

  5. Messier Tidy Upper

    Stunningly magnificent splendour. :-)

    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!

    Would I be right to think one theory is that the Tarantula is the core of the Large Magellanic Cloud – or am getting that mixed up with something else?

  6. Messier Tidy Upper

    @4. Diederick : Tarantulas? Mythical? Nah!

    They’re real spiders alright :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarantula

    Although I’m not so sure about the “dance of death bite” bit there. ;-)

    I think the reason the Tarantula Nebula :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarantula_Nebula

    got its name – aside from the resemblence & imagination – might be because the spiders were infesting the observatory at the time! (Or is that the Huntsman Nebula’s story?) ;-)

    Mind you, another (very remotely) possible explanation is that they were listening to this :

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ro8shNTlzTY

    Smashing Pumpkin’s song at the time! ;-)

  7. SJ

    “I’ve seen things you people would never believe…” Roy Batty, Bladerunner.

    Reminder of how insignificant we are, in this vast universe. Hope I could live a million years to see the stars shift and the world change…

  8. Allena

    Great. I had JUST changed my wallpaper to some nice art by my favorite painter, and now I have to change it back to a nebula.
    I need some time to just stare at this photo; a glance won’t do it justice.

  9. Sam H

    Just beautiful. Imagine if there are planets in that nebula…and the SKY on them would be…well, indescribable of course. :) At least I think so – I’ve read that if this were as close as M42 it would cast a shadow. My space art would come to life!! :D

    But 30 Doradus being the “grandaddy” of NGC 604? That’s one’s a LOT farther away, and it’s still visible in decently sized telescopes. Not does Wikipedia tell me it’s bigger (or at least about the same size), it says that if it were as close as M42 it would outshine Venus. So who’s the real “grandaddy” here?

    But then again, we all know how inaccurate the wikis can be these days ;)

  10. Jess Tauber

    Why haven’t astronomers generally not linked the extended spirals of bright stars to such compression of sheets and filaments of gas extending from a prior supernova?

    Jess Tauber

  11. Ross

    Has anyone on Earth yet observed the actual birth of a star? i.e. looked at a patch of sky, then later looked again and found a star that wasn’t there before? Would a star go from non-luminous to luminous on any time scale that we might observe?

  12. Gary Ansorge

    “Yes I will. I’m no photon.”

    If you were, the trip would appear to be instantaneous. Now, THAT’S care free travel.

    9. Sam H

    “Just beautiful. Imagine if there are planets in that nebula…and the SKY on them would be…well, indescribable of course.”

    I expect, from that vantage point, the night sky would seem just a bit dusty. We see it as brilliant because of our very long view, with all that gas and dust lit by all those stars. Living in the middle of it, it would appear the rest of the universe was just really dirty.

    Gary 7

  13. Sam H

    @ Gary #12: I know about that but still, the fact that it would cast a shadow at the distance of M42 leads me to believe that the night sky would probably glow just a little bit. Aside from the sky being “dirty” I think we’d also see glowing nebulosity around nearby stars within the nebula. What d’you say to that Phil? (along with my comment about the NGC 604 “grandaddy”?)

  14. Messier Tidy Upper

    @11. Ross Says:

    Has anyone on Earth yet observed the actual birth of a star? i.e. looked at a patch of sky, then later looked again and found a star that wasn’t there before?

    Well, that answer is yes – but what’s happening there is the opposite of star birth.

    Novae, supernovae and hypernovae have suddenly made “invisible” (too dim) stars become visible. But briefly.

    Would a star go from non-luminous to luminous on any time scale that we might observe?

    Afraid not. Stars are born inside coccooons of dark gas and dust (bok globules) and it takes awhile after they “ignite” (start fusing Hydrogen at their cores) for this material to get cleared away enough to see them.

    We’ve seen some *very* young and just forming stars -T-Tauri, RU Lupi and other “nebular variables” but catching a star in its first minutes in a process that takes millions of years and is thickly enshrouded and hidden from view, not easy at all.

    Infra-red astronomy has however captured some extremely young stars still forming in some nebulae such as M42 the Great Orion nebula. :-)

  15. LeAnn Craddock

    I keep thinking it just can’t get better then it does. I had hundreds of pictures on my iPhone and I just lost over half because of backing up my phone. Apparently your not supposed to. This is beautiful. Keep em coming.

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