Closeup up of a 7-quadrillion-kilometer-wide spider

By Phil Plait | August 7, 2012 7:00 am

Our Milky Way galaxy is not alone in space. It has several smaller companion galaxies, most notably the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. Best visible from the southern hemisphere, these two dwarf galaxies may be small in size, but not in content! The LMC in particular has a lot of stuff going on, mostly due to the presence of a vast, sprawling gas cloud nicknamed the Tarantula nebula. The Tarantula is churning out huge numbers of stars, thousands upon thousands, making it a target for astronomers positively drooling to study it.

That includes using Hubble. And when they do, they see beauty like this:

[Click to enarachnidate, or grab the 4000 x 3600 pixel giganticness.]

Isn’t that something? It’s really pretty, but the colors are a bit funny. The nebula is thick with warm hydrogen gas, lit up by the stars embedded in it. In reality this gas glows red, but the filters used to make this image were unusual – they include one that lets through infrared light, which in this picture is colored red. So here the hydrogen has been given a green tint. You can see lots of dark dust strewn about, too. What astronomers call dust is actually more like soot; big molecular chains of carbon that form tiny grains roughly the size of those in cigarette smoke. It’s very thin, but we see through so much of it that the light from stars and glowing gas behind it gets absorbed.

The Tarantula nebula is huge beyond comprehension: it’s 650 light years cross, or nearly 7 quadrillion kilometers (4 quadrillion miles) in size. This image, full of complexity, chaos, and structure down to the smallest scales, represents only about 6% of the entire nebula. I spent quite some time studying this nebula and some of the objects in it – like Supernova 1987A – and it still gives me chills. Space is huge.

By the way, this image was created by Judy Schmidt using archived observations as part of the Hubble’s Hidden Treasures project, to find older, perhaps less well-known pictures, and breathe new life into them. I’d say she did a great job! Go to that link and peruse the others there; trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA/Judy Schmidt


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (8)

  1. Love the picture, but I’ve been kind of disappointed in the coverage that the Tarantual nebula gets, overall. I was trying to find some decent picture collections or even a book covering it’s structure, etc, and it’s barely mentioned. Worse is in a lot of the astronomy apps you can get, including Wonders of the Universe on iPad, doesn’t even bother with it.

    I’d love to see it get a lot more popular coverage, but seems like anything that’s not visible in the northern hemisphere gets the short stick…

  2. dessy

    Love the Tarantula nebula. I’ll never forget the night I walked outside and saw something ‘funny’ in it. When I went back in and saw the late news I heard about 1987A and realised that’s what I’d been looking at! Many nights were spent with my 4inch refractor out looking at it over the next few weeks.

  3. Brian

    I was just down in New Zealand, and I LOVED stargazing down there. The south island has incredibly dark skies, so the LMC and SMC were impossible to miss! Sadly I did not have a telescope to view anything with.

    I have a question though, So when I saw the LMC at night (and in photos like this: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Large.mc.arp.750pix.jpg) I noticed that you can see a brighter patch that sticks off to the side of the ‘bar’ shape. I was wondering if that was anything significant.
    Is this the Tarantula Nebula? Because that’s pretty damn big!
    If not, where in the LMC is the Tarantula Nebula?

    Also: MARS!

  4. Jess Tauber

    Curious how the materials in the grains find each other. I’ve been wondering whether magnetic fields might enhance, even guide the process.

  5. Infinite123Lifer

    The Local Group. What an interesting bunch to say the least.

    “The Tarantula nebula is huge beyond comprehension: it’s 650 light years cross, or nearly 7 quadrillion kilometers (4 quadrillion miles) in size.”

    Thank you for the conversion from metric to US (as always . . . sadly, what? yeah, I was raised on US and thus have a better comprehension for distance using US than the globally accepted and agreed upon metric system. . . its maddening*) because I was having a really hard time visualizing 7 quadrillion kilometers, but 4 quadrillion miles! now theres a number I can . . . oh wait, its huge “beyond comprehension” . . . nevermind.

    JIC: The Tarantula Nebula has an estimated diameter of 200 parsecs (from wikipedia) if light years or kilometers or miles fail your fancy.

    Ok, I think I just used parsec in a sentence . . . yup, scratch that one off my mini bucket list :)

    * probably little to no chance in saving the next generation from such a confuscating fate either

  6. Jim

    Why is it that I love Diffraction Spikes so?

  7. @3. Brian asked :

    I have a question though, So when I saw the LMC at night (and in photos like this: (link snipped – ed.) I noticed that you can see a brighter patch that sticks off to the side of the ‘bar’ shape. I was wondering if that was anything significant. Is this the Tarantula Nebula? Because that’s pretty damn big! If not, where in the LMC is the Tarantula Nebula?

    As I understand it, the Tarantula nebula is part of that big patch at the left-hand side off the LMC’s bar I think you were meaning.

    I’ve linked a youtube clip to my name for you which zooms in on the Tarantula nebula and shows its intergalactic context and location – Hubble Zoom Into The Tarantula Nebula HD 1080p posted by violine777. :-)

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