A stunning star factory for Hubble's 22nd!

By Phil Plait | April 17, 2012 11:59 am

April 24th marks the 22nd anniversary of Hubble’s launch into space. To celebrate it, NASA and ESA released this devastating panoramic view (also available here) of the mighty star-forming region 30 Doradus:

Yegads. [Click to embiggen, or get the 4000 x 3200 pixel version, or grab the ginormous 267 Mb 20,323 x 16,259 pixel version. There’s also a way cool zoomable image too.]

30 Dor is a vast, sprawling, and chaotic region located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf irregular galaxy that orbits our Milky Way. Even though it’s about 170,000 light years away it’s so bright it’s easily visible using binoculars (if you happen to live in the southern hemisphere or not far from the equator). The reason it’s so bright is that this stellar nursery is churning out thousands of stars, and some of them are the massive, hot, and blue type. These flood the surrounding gas with ultraviolet light which makes the gas glow.

In fact, those young stars are so luminous and energetic they’re eating away the cloud from the inside out! Those big cavities you see are where the light and fierce winds of subatomic particles blown from the stars are slamming onto the gas, pushing it outwards. The edges of the cavities are bright because that’s where gas piles up, and shines more brightly.

In fact, the folks at Chandra released a similar version of this image, except they added observations from that observatory, which detects X-rays (as well as an image using Spitzer which sees in infrared). X-rays are emitted from extremely hot gas, and as you can see in the image inset here (click to embiggen) the cavities are filled with X-ray emitting material (colored blue in the image). I wrote more about this in a post when a similar image was released.


In the big Hubble image, I think my favorite part is the pinkish-orange circle located just left of center (it’s easier to see in the bigger versions of the pictures). This is pretty clearly a Strömgren sphere, where a very hot star has illuminated a nice spherical shell around itself. In color images these tend to look red due to the glow of hydrogen in the gas cloud. It’s not quite red in the Hubble image because that picture is an odd mix of component observations, including light from oxygen, hydrogen, and also observations using the ESO 2.2 meter telescope in Chile.

Anyway, the point here is that this region is a gorgeous, sprawling mess. But it’s also one of the most interesting volumes of space in the sky. It has gas, dust, young stars, old stars, stars on the edge of exploding, stars that already have exploded. Supernova 1987A was from a star born in 30 Dor.

And I have to smile. Hubble’s own history was kind of a mess, with the politics needed to get it designed, built, and flown… and then the discovery of the incorrectly manufactured mirror. Oh, how I remember that! I was part of a group that got some of the first observations from Hubble, and it didn’t take me long to see they were out of focus. It was a long, long two years before we got more observations, during which there were Congressional hearings, media frenzies, mocking editorials and cartoons. It was not fun.

But once new instruments were installed and the focus fixed, people quickly forgot the problems. Now, after 22 years, Hubble is still running strong, still returning amazing science and beautiful pictures of the Universe around us.

So beauty, order, and magnificence can come from chaos, a lesson Hubble teaches us both through itself and what it observes. Not too bad for a telescope that’s only 22.

Image credit: Hubble: NASA, ESA, ESO, D. Lennon and E. Sabbi (ESA/STScI), J. Anderson, S. E. de Mink, R. van der Marel, T. Sohn, and N. Walborn (STScI), N. Bastian (Excellence Cluster, Munich), L. Bedin (INAF, Padua), E. Bressert (ESO), P. Crowther (Sheffield), A. de Koter (Amsterdam), C. Evans (UKATC/STFC, Edinburgh), A. Herrero (IAC, Tenerife), N. Langer (AifA, Bonn), I. Platais (JHU) and H. Sana (Amsterdam); Chandra: NASA/CXC/PSU/L.Townsley et al. & NASA/JPL/PSU/L.Townsley et al


Related Posts:

Happy birthday, HST!
Angry nebula is really REALLY angry
Hubble’s 17th: Chaos, birth, and near-death
Hubble Heritage’s diamond gift
Hubble’s Fountain of Youth
Hubble celebrates 20 years in space with a jaw-dropper
Happy 20th anniversary, Hubble!
Gorgeous galaxies celebrate Hubble’s 21st birthday

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (13)

  1. I clicked to embiggen but only got 1280×1024.

  2. This is wonderful. Thanks, Bad.

  3. Cindy

    Phil,

    I remember those dark days as well. Wasn’t 30 Doradus an Early Release target after the first servicing mission with WFPC2 or FOC?

    Will have to remember to sing “Happy Birthday” to HST in my Astronomy class next week.

  4. So how much shielding would a starship need for its human crew to safely fly through one of these things?

  5. Wow. That would make the most amazing jig-saw puzzle… :D

    It’s incredibly beautiful. How very cool that there are humans clever enough to figure out how to observe it like this.

  6. Sam

    Too many wallpaper worthy pics lately, they’re piling up!

  7. kat wagner

    Mindblowing image, and I even found the orange circle thingie. BA, you do great narrative. Thanks for these photos.

  8. Cale Johnson

    This image and article “embiggen” my mind!

  9. Nigel Depledge

    That’s cool.

    I never noticed before that Hubble’s launch anniversary is also my son’s birthday.

  10. Jeff

    that is an excellent description of the cavities, and it really demonstrates the extreme power in those protostar solar winds and radiation pressure. Amazing. The more I see of these details of the processes, the less I think there is a distinction between “life” and “nonlife”, biological life is nothing but an extension of these living universe phenomenon, and don’t human nurseries seem like a type of extension of these stellar nurseries, to me they do.

  11. Jon Hanford

    Wow, there’s a lot going on in this part of the LMC besides 30 Dor, aka the Tarantula Nebula: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/30_Doradus .

    Besides several star clusters, emission, reflection and dark nebulae (including a few Bok globules), a supernova remnant, young stellar objects(YSOs), and a handful of background galaxies, this image also includes the star with the fastest known rotation rate, VFTS #102, and the “runaway” star 30 Dor #16 ejected from the massive cluster R 136 at the heart of the Tarantula Nebula! Luckily the folks that made this mosaic have provided a labelled version of this fantastic image to locate all these celestial goodies: http://www.spacetelescope.org/static/archives/images/large/heic1206c.jpg

    Really helps one appreciate the beauty of this small but crowded corner of the sky.

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