The web of the Tarantula Nebula seen by the Spitzer space telescope

The Tarantula Nebula (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech)
The Tarantula Nebula (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA has published a new image of the Tarantula Nebula, a region of the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of the Milky Way’s satellite dwarf galaxies. The image combines data from multiple observations conducted with the Spitzer space telescope, whose activity is about to cease. The Tarantula Nebula was one of the first targets studied with this instrument in 2003, after it was put into orbit, and demonstrated its capabilities. Once again, Spitzer offers a view of the structures existing in that area and above all of the many star formation processes taking place.

Also known as 30 Doradus or as NGC 2070 and C 103, the Tarantula Nebula is an excellent object of studies for its relative proximity, given that it’s about 170,000 light years from Earth, and for the intense star formation in progress in particular in some of its regions such as the open cluster cataloged as R136. Those are called in jargon starburst regions for the intense star formation and in R136 there are over 40 massive stars, including some of the most massive known, in an area less than a light year across. Starburst regions are difficult to study in distant galaxies, but in the Large Magellanic Cloud it’s possible to examine their details.

An article published in January 2018 in the journal “Science” reported the highly unusual amount of massive stars discovered in the Tarantula Nebula. The mechanisms that trigger an intense star formation in starburst regions are still unclear and that’s why many instruments got aimed at the Tarantula Nebula.

The formation of massive stars is the Tarantula Nebula’s main feature, but these are stars that consume their hydrogen at very high speed and consequently die after no more than a few tens of millions of years. That means that there are also supernovae in that area and the one cataloged as 1987A is the most famous. It happened on the nebula’s outskirts and its shock wave keeps on expanding and colliding with dust ejected during the progenitor star’s agony. Observations conducted with the Spitzer space telescope in 2006 showed that that dust is composed mainly of silicates, crucial in the formation of rocky planets. The observations of the consequences of 1987A continue with various instruments to understand the processes underway, thinking above all that the shock wave can compress gas clouds and trigger the birth of new star systems.

The mission of the Spitzer space telescope has come to an end but the collected data will keep on being examined for many more years. The observations of the Tarantula Nebula will keep on being useful together with those conducted with other instruments to better understand the processes taking place inside it. This image was created in two infrared wavelengths that represent different colors: the red in its heart indicates the presence of very hot gases while the blue regions indicate dust composed of organic molecules such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH). It’s a great cosmic show, but those are also very useful observations for scientific research.

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