A dusty stellar nursery shines brightly in a new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, formerly known as the Space Infrared Telescope Facility. Spitzer's heat-sensing "infrared eyes" have pierced the veiled core of the Tarantula Nebula to provide an unprecedented peek at massive newborn stars.
"We can now see the details of what's going on inside this active star-forming region," said Dr. Bernhard Brandl, principal investigator for the latest observations and an astronomer at both Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and the University of Leiden, the Netherlands.
Launched on August 25, 2003, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, the Spitzer Space Telescope is the fourth of NASA's Great Observatories, a program that also includes Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope. Spitzer's state-of-the-art infrared detectors can sense the infrared radiation, or heat, from the farthest, coldest and dustiest objects in the universe.
One such dusty object is the Tarantula Nebula. Located in the southern constellation of Dorado, in a nearby galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud, this glowing cloud of gas and dust is one of the most dynamic star-forming regions in our local group of galaxies. It harbors some of the most massive stars in the universe, up to 100 times more massive than our own Sun, and is the only nebula outside our galaxy visible to the naked eye.
While other telescopes have highlighted the nebula's spidery filaments and its star-studded core, none was capable of fully penetrating its dust-enshrouded pockets of younger stars.
The new Spitzer image shows, for the first time, a more complete picture of this huge stellar nursery, including previously hidden stars. The image also captures in stunning detail a hollow cavity around the stars, where intense radiation has blown away cosmic dust.
"You can see a hole in the cloud as if a giant hair dryer blew away all the gas and dust," said Brandl.
By studying this portrait of a family of stars, astronomers can piece together how stars in general, including those like our Sun, form.
JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. JPL is a division of Caltech.
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