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  sci-tech> space> story pagecorner  

Stellar nursery in nearby galaxy teems with activity

Images taken in infrared and visible light by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope recount a vivid story of the turbulent birthing process of massive stars.  

September 29, 1999
Web posted at: 2:17 p.m. EDT (1817 GMT)

(CNN) -- Features of stellar birth never seen before are shown in Hubble space telescope images of a nebula where stars are sprouting like gawky suburbs around an urban hub.

Radiation and gases spewed from massive stars in the core of the nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way, are triggering the burst of star birth, as shown in the infrared and visible-light images released Wednesday.

The nascent stars, embedded in columns of gas and dust are blowing away the tops of their nurseries, like a volcano blasting material into the sky.

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And jets of material streaming from one developing star are colliding with nearby dust and gas, causing impressive glowing patterns in the region called the 30 Doradus Nebula -- 170,000 light years from Earth. A light year is 6 trillion miles or the distance light travels in a year.

"This region is larger and contains more massive stars than any similar object in our galaxy," said Nolan R. Walborn of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland. The STSI oversees the use of NASA's Hubble telescope as it orbits Earth.

star cluster
This picture, taken in visible light with the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, shows the 30 Doradus Nebula. Montages in the upper left and right of the larger image show a deeper view seen by Hubble's infrared camera.  

The stellar action is happening relatively nearby, providing astronomers with a "laboratory" for studying the details of the birth and development of "hefty" stars and multiple-star systems.

"Heavy" stars key to process

A 2 million year-old cluster of massive stars, called R136, unleashed the gas and energy that created the star nurseries, Walborn said.

Its "heavy" stars have temperatures 10 times that of the sun and masses up to 100 times greater. They shed bubbles of material at speeds of thousands of miles per second, which collide with surrounding dense clouds of hydrogen.

Some of those clouds collapse, igniting second-generation stars, he said. Most of these new stars are less than a million years old.

Astronomers think there are thousands of fledgling stars in 30 Doradus, a significant fraction of the original generation of stars, packed into a 600-light-year-wide nebula.

Resembling the towers of the Eagle Nebula, columns of dust shown in the image are oriented toward the central star cluster, pointing to its role in stellar birth.

Radiation from some of the new stars has begun to erode their natal dust columns, and their emergence from the columns can be seen in the visible-light images.

Others remain completely immersed in their stellar incubators and can only be seen in infrared images. Many of them never have been seen before, Walborn said.

The wave of star birth will continue to migrate farther out in the nebula, he said, until in a few million years it will be a shell of glowing gas with its most massive stars at its periphery.

The hub itself will be dimmer and abandoned by the massive stars to which it gave birth.


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Hubble Heritage Project
Space Telescope Science Institute
The Next Generation Space Telescope
Instituto de Astrofsica de Canarias (English home page)
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