NASA’s Hubble captures dazzling photo of humongous star factory: Tarantula Nebula

The State Column, Margaret Ledwith | January 12, 2014

NASA’s Hubble captures dazzling photo of humongous star factory: Tarantula Nebula

Like lifting a giant veil, the near-infrared vision of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope uncovers a dazzling new view deep inside the Tarantula Nebula.

The Hubble Space Telescope has done it again. Its infrared cameras have captured a stunning image of the interior of the Tarantula Nebula, a fabulously large gas cloud giving birth to hundreds of thousands of stars. The Hubble Tarantula Treasury Project snapped the shot.

The sprawling Tarantula Nebula, about 650 light years across, is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a galaxy about 170,000 light years from Earth. Its one of the largest birthing rooms for stars known and embedded within it are more than 800,000 stars and protostars. The mind-blowing Hubble mosaic of Tarantula is assembled from 438 separate images and spans 600 light years, according to

The view from Hubble, taken by its Wide Field Camera 3 and Advanced Camera for Surveys, comes from visible and near-infrared light, which gives the image an eerie pink glow. Only near-infrared light can penetrate the dust clouds in which infant stars are embedded.

The brightest part of the nebula reveals its main star cluster, known as R136. Some of the stars in the cluster are 100 times the mass of our sun, so big they’re about to blow themselves apart, says Phil Plait of Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog. Star formation in the Tarantula Nebula began tens of millions of years ago, astronomers say.

The Tarantula nebula is so fertile, astronomers suspect it may be in the process of creating a globular cluster, a spherical collection of stars that spins around a galactic core, like our Milky Way. Because most such clusters were formed billions of years ago, getting to see one as it’s forming is a rare gift to scientists.

When the Hubble Tarantula Treasury Project is complete, it will have produced a huge catalog of stellar properties, which will greatly help astronomers understand how stars are born. It offers scientists “the rare opportunity to investigate the process of star formation in an environment that resembles in metallicity, dust content, and star formation rate, the extreme conditions of the early universe,” the Project says.

Because Hubble can perceive individual stars and many red protostars along with much older red giants and supergiants, scientists will gain a greater understanding not only of star birth but of star 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,” principal investigator Ellen Sabbi, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, said in a statement.

The first results from the Project are published in the Astronomical Journal and are being presented at the 223rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in National Harbor, Maryland.

Delila James - Delila James practiced civil rights and employment law for almost 20 years. She also has a Master's degree in the History of Science. Before going to law school, she owned a popular live music nightclub in Madison, WI.