X-ray Image of an Expanding Space Spider
30 Doradus — a.k.a. the Tarantula Nebula — is a gigantic region of incredibly hot gas, intense radiation and powerful stellar winds where massive stars are born. Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, this cosmic spiderweb of superheated gas is seen here in a combined image from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and Spitzer Space Telescope.
Over 31 hours of observation time created this view, in which blue shows the x-rays emitted by multi-million degree gas clouds and red is the infrared light from cooler regions of dust.
The Large Magellanic Cloud is a smaller satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way. It’s visible — along with the Small Magellanic Cloud — from the southern hemisphere and located approximately 160,000 light-years away.
30 Doradus is a veritable factory of giant star formation. About 2,400 massive stars have been found within its 800-light-year expanse, and the intense radiation and winds that they emit is actively carving out spaces in the hot gases that envelop them.
To put it in scale, if this region were at the distance of the Orion Nebula (1,300 light years from Earth) it would span an area of 60 full moons and its visible light would be bright enough to cast shadows at night!
As the radiation from these young stars spreads outwards, it strips electrons from the hydrogen atoms in the surrounding interstellar clouds. This creates vast areas of ionized hydrogen (HII), making 30 Doradus the largest such region in the entire Local Group of galaxies.
And, as huge as it is, 30 Doradus is still growing! But astronomers are at odds as to what’s driving the expansion. While it was once said that the radiation from the massive young stars was forcing the entire region to grow larger, a recent study claims that it’s the vast bubbles of hot gas glowing brightly with x-ray radiation that are shaping the nebula.
More studies are needed to determine which — if not somehow both — of these hypotheses is accurate.
Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/L.Townsley et al.; Infrared: NASA/JPL/PSU/L.Townsley et al.