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