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
In the heart of the Large Magellanic Cloud (one of the Milky Way’s many satellite galaxies), there lies a vast complex of gas called 30 Doradus. And inside that sprawling volume of space is the Tarantula Nebula, a star-forming region so huge it dwarfs even our own Orion Nebula. Thousands of stars are churning away in there, going through the process of being born.
And as they do, the hottest and brightest of them carve huge cavities in the nebula, heating the tenuous gas therein to millions of degrees. The result? This:
[Click to embiggen.]
I love this image! It’s a combination of observations from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (in blue, showing the incredibly hot gas) and from Spitzer Space Telescope (in red, showing cooler gas). Those bubbles of hot, X-ray emitting gas are constrained by the cooler gas around them, but it’s likely the hot gas is expanding, driving the overall expansion of the nebula itself. However, it’s also possible the sheer flood of high-energy radiation from the nascent stars is behind the gas’s expansion… or it’s a combination of both. Astronomers are still arguing over this, and observations like this one will help figure out who’s right.
… but you know me. I love pareidolia, and there’s no way you can look at this image and not see a really angry screaming face, shrieking at that blue blob hovering in its way. That’s so cool!
And c’mon, NASA: you release this image two weeks after Halloween? Oh well, I’ll add it to my scary astronomy gallery anyway, which is after the jump below.
Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/L.Townsley et al.; Infrared: NASA/JPL/PSU/L.Townsley et al.
When I first saw this picture of NGC 2100, I thought it was a globular cluster. But I was wrong. That happens sometimes. Still, it’s worth it to see such a magnificent photo:
Yegads! What a shot! [Click to enstellarnate.]
Globular clusters are tightly packed collections of thousands of stars in a roughly spherical shape (hence their name), and are generally very old. But upon second glance, the stars of NGC 2100 in this image didn’t look quite right to me. There didn’t appear to be enough, for one thing, and though they’re highly concentrated in the center, the distribution around the core seemed off somehow.
Turns out that’s correct. Read More
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
Ever wanted to see a Tarantula up close? Up really close? Here’s your chance!
[Click to hugely enarachnidate, or grab the atomically-mutated, 130 Mb, 9000 x 12000 pixel megaspider version here. But be ye fairly warned, says I: you'll lose your afternoon looking at it.]
That is a new image of the Tarantula Nebula (ha! Got you!) from the European Southern Observatory’s VISTA survey telescope in Chile. The telescope can see in the near-infrared, just outside the range of our human vision, and is being used to map a big chunk of the southern sky.
The Tarantula is a sprawling star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small companion galaxy to our own Milky Way Galaxy. Of course, "small" is a matter of perspective; the LMC is still tens of thousands of light years across and has several billion stars in it. From its distance of 180,000 light years, the LMC appears as a smudge in the sky to the unaided eyes of southern observers.
In astronomy terms the image above is huge; it covers a square degree of sky, several times the area of the full Moon! However, in real terms, if you lived in the southern hemisphere and went outside on a clear night, you could block out the entire region of the picture with the tip of one finger held at arm’s length.
The European Southern Observatory has unveiled a new planet-hunter: TRAPPIST: TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope. I know, I know, but we’re running out of acronyms here, folks. If it makes you feel better, it was named after a beer.
It sits in the high and dry Atacama desert in Chile, rapidly and autonomously scanning the sky, looking at millions of stars and recording their brightnesses. It does this over and again, looking for the tell-tale dip in starlight caused when a planet passes in front of its parent star.
In the meantime, it also takes incredible pictures of the sky:
That’s the Tarantula Nebula, a sprawling complex of gas and dust churning out stars at an incredible rate. To give you an idea of how luminous it is, at 180,000 light years away (that’s 1.8 quintillion kilometers, or more than a quintillion miles!) it’s still visible to the naked eye (if you live in the southern hemisphere, that is). TRAPPIST’s primary mission is to look for transiting planets as well as comets visible in the southern skies, but like any good telescope pointing up it’s capable of all sorts of good science — if, for example, there are any changes in the Tarantula (a star explodes, or flares up) TRAPPIST will catch it.