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The Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud

Brash young stars vie for attention in this NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of a rowdy stellar nursery located in the heart of the Tarantula Nebula (also known as 30 Doradus). Early astronomers gave the nebula this descriptive nickname because its glowing, spindly filaments look like spider legs.

30 Doradus is the brightest “starburst” region visible in a neighboring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. No known star-forming region in our own galaxy is as large or as prolific as 30 Doradus. Fortunately, 30 Doradus can be seen clearly from Earth, and it is nearby enough for Hubble to resolve its individual stars. This allows astronomers the rare opportunity to study stellar evolution closely in the exotic, extragalactic context of a starburst.

The Hubble composite image comprises one of the largest mosaics ever assembled from Hubble photos, including observations taken by Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and the Advanced Camera for Surveys. Hubble’s unparalleled eye for fine, intricate detail is composited with ground-based data that trace hydrogen gas (in red) and oxygen (in blue). These complementary observations of the Tarantula Nebula were taken with the European Southern Observatory’s 2.2-meter telescope in La Silla, Chile. NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute are releasing this image to celebrate Hubble’s 22nd anniversary.

The image features scenes from the drama of star birth, from embryonic stars still swaddled in cocoons of dark gas to stellar behemoths that rage and die – regrettably, predictably – in blazing supernova explosions. 30 Doradus is a star factory on an industrial scale, churning out stars at a furious pace in a production run that extends for millions of years. The pictured region’s central cavity illustrates the profound effect that all of this star formation can have on the surrounding environment.

The newborn, massive stars are something like cosmic, non-eco-friendly light bulbs. Each star cranks out a dazzlingly high wattage in the form of optical and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This flood of UV light, the gusts of hot particles also streaming from these stars, and intermittent supernova blasts have all hollowed out a bubble in the gaseous nebula. While the nebula’s gas and dust seem to have withered under the stellar glare, interesting features emerge at the edges of the bubble. Here, the torrent of UV radiation still etches away at an enveloping cloud of hydrogen gas. The exposed rim has been sculpted and compressed into sharp ridges. Resembling the surface of a choppy, windswept ocean, these uneven edges curve and form awkward peaks that jut back into the bubble’s punishing environment. Only with Hubble’s exceptional resolution could the true intricacy and three-dimensionality of these features be revealed.

Besides sculpting the gaseous terrain, the brilliant stars may also be triggering a successive generation of offspring. When their outflows hits dense walls of gas, shocks are created, which in turn may generate a new wave of star birth. The star formation in 30 Doradus perpetuates itself in a cycle that seems sublime in its fierceness – terrible yet beautiful. All told, this image can be appreciated as a microcosm of the entire Tarantula Nebula: a swirling palette of gas, dust, and stars in the midst of tumultuous upheaval.

Credit: NASA, ESA, ESO, D. Lennon (ESA/STScI), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)