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Staring into a Seething Nest of Massive Stars

Astronomers have gotten an unprecedented look into two beautiful stellar nurseries, revealing a dramatic display of glowing gases and some of the most massive -- and violent -- stars in the Milky Way. Continue reading →

NGC 3603 has the distinction of being one of the brightest and most active star formation regions in our galaxy. Now, astronomers using the Wide Field Imager at the ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile have gotten an unprecedented look into the cluster, revealing a dramatic display of glowing gases and some of the most massive - and violent - stars in the Milky Way.

NEWS: Baby Stars are Ripping Their Stellar Nursery to Shreds

NGC 3603 is located approximately 20,000 light-years from Earth and can be seen in the observation as the huge glowing nebulous object in the left of the image. The second nebula to the right, with large arcing tendrils of gas, is NGC 3576, which is actually closer to us - about half the distance from Earth.

In the core of NGC 3603 is a system of fascinating stars known as Wolf-Rayets called HD 97950. Wolf-Rayet stars are massive stars (around 20 times the mass of our sun) that are coming to the end of their lives. Rapidly burning all the available hydrogen gases in their cores, Wolf-Rayets are extremely unstable; powerful stellar winds blast huge quantities of stellar material from the stars' upper layers. Eventually these stars will explode as supernovae.

NEWS: Stellar Nursery Formed 30 Million Years Before Our Sun

Surrounding HD 97950 is a reddish cloud of glowing gas called an HII region. These beautiful structures are powered by ultraviolet radiation generated by young stars cocooned inside the stellar nursery. This particular HII region is several hundred light-years wide and is known to be the most massive in our galaxy.

The nearer NGC 3576, which is only 9,000 light-years from us, has large curved structures of gas generated by powerful stellar winds. Also inside the nebula are very dark silhouetted nebulae called Bok globules - probable locations of baby stars being born, but hidden from view by the globules' thick gas and dust.

For more on this fascinating observation, browse Wednesday's ESO news release.

This mosaic of images from the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile shows two dramatic star formation regions in the southern Milky Way. The first of these, on the left, is dominated by the star cluster NGC 3603, located about 20 000 light-years away, in the Carina–Sagittarius spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy. The second object, on the right, is a collection of glowing gas clouds known as NGC 3576 that lies only about half as far from Earth.

Using data from the Hubble Space Telescope's famous Ultra-Deep Field (UDF) observation,

astronomers have been able to deduce at what age spiral galaxies acquire their spiral structure

. Since its launch in 1990, the veteran observatory has studied countless galaxies, but some of the most striking images are that of the majestic spirals that pervade the entire observable universe. In this celebration of spiral galaxies and Hubble's prowess at imaging them, we've collected some of our favorite galactic views from the space telescope's archives.

NEWS: When Did Galaxies Get Their Spirals?

In this majestic image, phenomenal detail in galaxy

NGC 2841

's spiraling dust lanes have been captured.

Spiral galaxy

NGC 5866

as seen nearly edge-on from Hubble's perspective. The dark galactic dust silhouettes the bright galactic core.

An

unnamed spiral galaxy

located deep within the Coma Cluster of galaxies, around 320 million light-years away in the northern constellation Coma Berenices, shows off some intricate detail in its arms.

The famous

Sombrero galaxy

(Messier 104) is an edge-on spiral galaxy -- the "rim" of the sombrero is thick lanes of dust obscuring the galaxy's starlight.

M81

is another spiral galaxy not too dissimilar to our Milky Way. Young, bluish stars track along the galaxy's majestic arms, while older, redder stars cluster in its bright core.

This unique view of

M106

is a combination of Hubble data and photographs taken by astrophotographer Robert Gendler.

The 'classic' spiral

Whirlpool Galaxy

gravitationally interacts with a neighboring galaxy, refining its very clear spiral arms.

To celebrate Hubble's 21st year in space, astronomers released this striking image of a pair of interacting galaxies called

Arp 273

. (Image rotated)

The 3 galaxies of

Arp 274

appear to be very close to one another, but astronomers believe that they are far apart and only overlapping from our perspective.

Galaxy

UGC 10214

is undergoing some violent gravitational disturbances after a suspected galactic collision. The creation of the stream of stars post-collision appear as a tail, giving the galaxy "The Tadpole" moniker.

To see full-resolution images and more detail on the galaxies showcased here, browse the mindblowing online Hubble album.