See massive stars being born in a corner of the Tarantula Nebula

Georgina Torbet

Even with things looking bleak here on Earth right now, there’s always time to appreciate the wonders of the wider universe. The Hubble Space Telescope has captured a stunning image of a region of massive star formation called LHA 120-N 150, sitting on the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula.

The nebula is located over 160,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small dwarf galaxy which is a satellite to our Milky Way galaxy. It is the largest known stellar nursery, according to the Hubble scientists, and is an active region of dust and gas which coalesces under gravitational pressure to form new stars.

This image shows a region of space called LHA 120-N150. It is a substructure of the gigantic Tarantula Nebula. The latter is the largest known stellar nursery in the local Universe. The nebula is situated more than 160 000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring dwarf irregular galaxy that orbits the Milky Way. ESA/Hubble, NASA, I. Stephens

“Astronomers have studied LHA 120-N 150 to learn more about the environment in which massive stars form,” Hubble scientists wrote in a blog post. “Theoretical models of the formation of massive stars suggest that they should form within clusters of stars, but observations indicate that up to 10% of them also formed in isolation. The giant Tarantula Nebula with its numerous substructures is the perfect laboratory in which to resolve this puzzle as in it massive stars can be found both as members of clusters and in isolation.”

The study of massive stars is challenging, however, because while stars are in the process of formation they look a lot like a dense clump of dust. One way to study dusty regions is to use telescopes that operate on different wavelengths other than visible light.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, for example, which retired and ended its scientific observations earlier this year, observed its targets in the infrared wavelength. This allowed it to “peer through” clouds of dust and see underlying structures. One of the telescopes final targets was the Tarantula Nebula, which it had first imaged in 2004. The final image shows the nebula is its full glory, including an area of massive star formation called a starburst region.