Astronomers have captured the most detailed view to date of the region of space surrounding the famous Tarantula Nebula – a 1,000 light-year wide swirling cloud of cosmic gas, the core of which is illuminated by some of the brightest and most massive stars ever detected. The environment surrounding the Tarantula Nebula can be seen in glorious detail, dotted with smaller stellar nurseries, teeming star clusters, and supernova remnants.
The Tarantula Nebula represents the brightest and most energetic star formation region in the Local Group - a collection of nearby galaxies which, bound by gravity, travel the universe together, alongside the Milky Way. Located roughly 160,000 light-years from Earth, the Tarantula Nebula orbits our galaxy as a key component of a dwarf galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud.
This latest view of the Tarantula Nebula was constructed from observations made using four distinct color filters of the OmegaCAM instrument, which is mounted aboard the European Southern Observatory's VLT Survey Telescope, in the Atacama Desert, Chile.
OmegaCAM is a 256-megapixel CCD camera capable of capturing enormous wide-field images of the cosmos, roughly 16 times larger than those taken by the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys, which serves a similar big picture purpose. OmegaCAM, along with its VLT Survey Telescope mount, enjoys stunning astronomy conditions from a remote vantage point in the Chilean desert, which provides beautifully clear, cloud free skies, and a relative absence of human-made light pollution.
In the new mosaic image release, the Tarantula Nebula can be seen lurking at the top. At the heart of the nebula, also known as 30 Dorados, lies the enormous star cluster NGC 2070, the core of which contains several dozen stars each with a mass the equivalent of 100 Suns. It is this energetic, youthful star cluster that is responsible for providing much of the nebula's glow.
The Tarantula Nebula, though by far the most impressive, is not the only cosmic structure to be seen shining in the mosaic. To the left, the open star cluster NGC 2100 appears as a concentration of brilliant bright blue stars, surrounded by reddish stellar bodies.
The star cluster Hodge 301 is also present hiding among the glow of the nebula. It is thought that more than 40 stars that originated in this cluster have since gone supernova, spreading enriched stellar material throughout the vast structure.
Below the Tarantula Nebula in the center of the image is the star cluster and nebula NGC 2074. This is known as an emission nebula, which means that, not only do the stars embedded within the structure emit light, but also the nebula material itself. A dark seahorse-shaped structure made of choking dust can be seen in this region. Sadly, this 20 light-year long structure is destined to be blown away and dispersed by the powerful stellar winds of newly-formed stars.
The video below zooms in on the new image of the Tarantula Nebula's environment from the perspective of Earth.
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