A stunning star factory for Hubble's 22nd!

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
April 17 2012 11:59 AM

A stunning star factory for Hubble's 22nd!

April 24th marks the 22nd anniversary of Hubble's launch into space. To celebrate it, NASA and ESA released this devastating panoramic view (also available here) of the mighty star-forming region 30 Doradus:

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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30 Dor is a vast, sprawling, and chaotic region located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf irregular galaxy that orbits our Milky Way. Even though it's about 170,000 light years away it's so bright it's easily visible using binoculars (if you happen to live in the southern hemisphere or not far from the equator). The reason it's so bright is that this stellar nursery is churning out thousands of stars, and some of them are the massive, hot, and blue type. These flood the surrounding gas with ultraviolet light which makes the gas glow.

In fact, those young stars are so luminous and energetic they're eating away the cloud from the inside out! Those big cavities you see are where the light and fierce winds of subatomic particles blown from the stars are slamming onto the gas, pushing it outwards. The edges of the cavities are bright because that's where gas piles up, and shines more brightly.

In fact, the folks at Chandra released a similar version of this image, except they added observations from that observatory, which detects X-rays (as well as an image using Spitzer which sees in infrared). X-rays are emitted from extremely hot gas, and as you can see in the image inset here (click to embiggen) the cavities are filled with X-ray emitting material (colored blue in the image). I wrote more about this in a post when a similar image was released.

In the big Hubble image, I think my favorite part is the pinkish-orange circle located just left of center (it's easier to see in the bigger versions of the pictures). This is pretty clearly a Strömgren sphere, where a very hot star has illuminated a nice spherical shell around itself. In color images these tend to look red due to the glow of hydrogen in the gas cloud. It's not quite red in the Hubble image because that picture is an odd mix of component observations, including light from oxygen, hydrogen, and also observations using the ESO 2.2 meter telescope in Chile.

Anyway, the point here is that this region is a gorgeous, sprawling mess. But it's also one of the most interesting volumes of space in the sky. It has gas, dust, young stars, old stars, stars on the edge of exploding, stars that already have exploded. Supernova 1987A was from a star born in 30 Dor.

And I have to smile. Hubble's own history was kind of a mess, with the politics needed to get it designed, built, and flown... and then the discovery of the incorrectly manufactured mirror. Oh, how I remember that! I was part of a group that got some of the first observations from Hubble, and it didn't take me long to see they were out of focus. It was a long, long two years before we got more observations, during which there were Congressional hearings, media frenzies, mocking editorials and cartoons. It was not fun.

But once new instruments were installed and the focus fixed, people quickly forgot the problems. Now, after 22 years, Hubble is still running strong, still returning amazing science and beautiful pictures of the Universe around us.

So beauty, order, and magnificence can come from chaos, a lesson Hubble teaches us both through itself and what it observes. Not too bad for a telescope that's only 22.

Image credit: Hubble: NASA, ESA, ESO, D. Lennon and E. Sabbi (ESA/STScI), J. Anderson, S. E. de Mink, R. van der Marel, T. Sohn, and N. Walborn (STScI), N. Bastian (Excellence Cluster, Munich), L. Bedin (INAF, Padua), E. Bressert (ESO), P. Crowther (Sheffield), A. de Koter (Amsterdam), C. Evans (UKATC/STFC, Edinburgh), A. Herrero (IAC, Tenerife), N. Langer (AifA, Bonn), I. Platais (JHU) and H. Sana (Amsterdam); Chandra: NASA/CXC/PSU/L.Townsley et al. & NASA/JPL/PSU/L.Townsley et al



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