The Tarantula Nebula or NGC 2070, and also called 30 Doradus, is in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). It was originally thought to be a star, but in 1751, Nicolas Louis de Lacaille recognized its nebular nature. Early astronomers nicknamed the nebula because its glowing filaments resemble spider legs. Considering its distance of about 160,000 light-years from our Solar System, this is an extremely luminous non-stellar object at an apparent magnitude of 8. Its luminosity is so great that if it were as close to Earth as the Orion Nebula, the Tarantula Nebula would cast shadows. In fact, it is the most active starburst region known in the Local Group of galaxies. It is also one of the largest such region in the Local Group with an estimated diameter of roughly 650 light-years.
The region’s sparkling centerpiece is a giant, young star cluster (left of center), numbering roughly 500,000 stars, known as R136 (approximate diameter 35 light years) that produces most of the energy that makes the nebula visible and weighing more than 300 times the mass of our Sun. However, the estimated mass of the cluster is 450,000 solar masses, suggesting it will likely become a globular cluster in the future.
The massive stars are carving deep cavities in the surrounding material by unleashing a torrent of ultraviolet light, which is etching away the enveloping hydrogen gas cloud in which the stars were born. When the radiation hits dense walls of gas, it creates shocks, which may be generating a new wave of star birth. The colors represent the hot gas that dominates regions of the image.
At the exact centre lies the brilliant, but isolated star VFTS 682 and to its lower right the very rich star cluster R 136. The origins of VFTS are unclear — was it ejected from R 136 or did it form on its own? The star (just off center) appears yellow-orange in this view.
Filaments of ionized gas in the proximity of the R136 cluster, which lies beyond the lower left edge of the photo. The different hues are due to different physical conditions that manifest themselves in the spectrum of the light emitted by the gas. Note also the dark lanes running roughly from bottom left to upper right, which are due to filaments of obscuring dust seen in projection against the background of bright nebulosity.
In addition to R136, the Tarantula Nebula also contains an older star cluster – catalogued as Hodge 301 (top right quadrant). The most massive stars of this cluster have already exploded in supernovae.
Credits: D Lennon, ESA, Southern Deep Sky Treasures, NASA, Wikipedia.