NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has recently snapped a series of breathtaking, new images inside the Tarantula Nebula, located within the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) – the third closest galaxy to the Milky Way. Hubble was used to generate a picture unveiling more than 800,000 stars and protostars that were blanketed within the nebula.
Estimated to be around 170,000 light-years away, the Tarantula Nebula (a.k.a. 30 Doradus) is an enormous, low-density cloud of partially ionized gas that boasts a concentrated star cluster (R136) at its core. It’s conjectured that R136 – with a diameter of approximately 35 light-years – is responsible for generating most of the energy that makes the Tarantula Nebula visible.
The Hubble image reveals stunning clouds of swirling gas and dust, alongside clusters of shimmering stars. Although Hubble officials have released other images of the beautiful nebula, on past occasion, the latest observations are the deepest views that astronomers have managed to collect of the cosmic region.
Elena Sabbi, of the Space Telescope Science Institute, presented the new image at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society. Speaking during the event, Sabbi took the opportunity to describe the findings:
“The image is dominated by gas and dust, but I can assure you that there are more than 800,000 stars living in this region.”
Sabbi elaborated further, explaining that the veil created by the dust needed to be stripped back, in order to perceive the stars throughout the region; the results of the study have been published in the Astronomical Journal.
The observations were made using Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) and Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), as part of the Hubble Tarantula Treasury Project (HTTP). After studying the region in near-ultraviolet, near-infrared and optical spectral bands, it is hoped the multi-band view will provide astronomers with a more comprehensive map of the stellar content; it has been suggested that this knowledge could prove crucial for future investigations into star formation, under the extreme environmental conditions known to resemble those of starburst galaxies and the early universe.
Due to its proximity, the Tarantula Nebula represents a prime opportunity to study super-clusters of stars. Since the nebula is the most active starburst region known to exist within the Local Group of galaxies – churning out a huge number of stars – the region has been described as an astronomical “laboratory” that can be exploited to study star birth. The Tarantula Nebula’s extreme star birth rate is posited to have been caused by gas stripped from a nearby galaxy, called the Small Magellanic Cloud.
With the “… metallicity, dust content, and star formation rate…” of the region thought to mimic those present during the early universe, HTTP astronomers ultimately aim to study star formation in far greater detail. Hubble could also provide unique insight into the evolution of stars by resolving youthful protostars and drawing comparisons to aging red giants and supergiants.
The latest spectacular image of the Tarantula Nebula has also been used in a new electronic book, entitled Reach for the Stars: Touch, Look, Listen, Learn. The new book is primarily designed for children and the visually impaired, and will be free to iPad owners. Sabbi recently explained that it was aimed at inspiring and attracting people to science.
By James Fenner