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Hubble Reveals Tarantula Nebula's Busy, Complex World of Star Formation

Jan 13, 2014 09:31 AM EST
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Hubble infrared view of the Tarantula Nebula
Using the Hubble Space Telescope's near-infrared vision, scientists have uncovered a stunning new look inside the massive Tarantula Nebula and its more than 800,000 stars and protostars.
(Photo : ESA/Hubble Information Center)

Using the Hubble Space Telescope's near-infrared vision, scientists have uncovered a stunning new look inside the massive Tarantula Nebula and its more than 800,000 stars and protostars.

Located 170,000 light years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, the Tarantula Nebula, or 30 Doradus, is a site of rampant star birth.

Such vigorous formation may be fueled partly by gas stolen from a small nearby galaxy, according to scientists. Known as the Small Magellanic Cloud, the dwarf galaxy is located 199,000 light years away and is itself only 7,000 light years across. 

Star formation began in the nebula tens of millions of years ago, though not in one specific region. Rather, as gas accumulated, pockets of star birth would suddenly erupt into life. The new images are helping astronomers to identify some of those pockets, which they anticipate will eventually merge into larger clusters.

The new findings are part of the Hubble Tarantula Treasury Program, which, upon completion, will amount to a large catalog of stellar properties scientists will be able to use to study star formation. Presented at this year's meeting of the American Astronomical Society, the 438 images spanning 600 light years include everything from newborns to aging supergiants, offering a detailed view of stars' birth and evolution.

"Because of the mosaic's exquisite detail and sheer breadth, we can follow how episodes of star birth migrate across the region in space and time," said Elena Sabbi, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md., and the principal investigator of the observing team.

Going forward, researchers hope to use the information to answer yet another mystery: whether or not supermassive stars always form in clusters, or if some are born in isolation.

The study was published in the Astronomical Journal.

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