Starburst Cluster Shows Celestial Fireworks
Like a July 4 fireworks display, a young, glittering collection of
stars looks like an aerial burst. The cluster is surrounded by
clouds of interstellar gas and dust -- the raw material for new
star formation. The nebula, located 20,000 light-years away in
the constellation Carina, contains a central cluster of huge, hot
stars, called NGC 3603.
This environment is not as peaceful as it looks. Ultraviolet
radiation and violent stellar winds have blown out an
enormous cavity in the gas and dust enveloping the cluster,
providing an unobstructed view of the cluster.
Most of the stars in the cluster were born around the same
time but differ in size, mass, temperature, and color. The
course of a star's life is determined by its mass, so a cluster of
a given age will contain stars in various stages of their lives,
giving an opportunity for detailed analyses of stellar life cycles.
NGC 3603 also contains some of the most massive stars
known. These huge stars live fast and die young, burning
through their hydrogen fuel quickly and ultimately ending their
lives in supernova explosions.
Astronomers believe most stars -- including stars like the Sun -- are born in clusters. Star clusters like NGC 3603 provide important clues to
understanding the origin of massive star formation in the
early, distant universe. Astronomers also use massive clusters
to study distant starbursts that occur when galaxies collide,
igniting a flurry of star formation. The proximity of NGC 3603
makes it an excellent lab for studying such distant and
This Hubble Space Telescope image was captured in August
2009 and December 2009 with the Wide Field Camera 3 in
both visible and infrared light, which trace the glow of sulfur,
hydrogen, and iron.
Credit: NASA, ESA, R. O'Connell (University of Virginia), F.
Paresce (National Institute for Astrophysics, Bologna, Italy), E.
Young (Universities Space Research Association/Ames
Research Center), the WFC3 Science Oversight Committee, and
the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)