The Cosmic Web – NGC 2070 by Joseph Brimacombe


Just one glance at this incredible visage is enough to make you do a double take. This intricate net of nebular mists is known as 30 Doradus, or even more commonly as the “Tarantula”, but no space spider created this web. No, sir. What spun out these gossamer strands of HII silk is one of the largest and most active star forming regions known to our local galaxy group…

When Nicolas Louis de Lacaille first saw it in 1751 through his half-inch spyglass, he knew it was something different. He wrote down that it was nebular in nature, without stars and said; “It resembles the nucleus of a small comet.” Too bad he didn’t realize what he was really looking at, for Lacaille was a huge fan of all things science. What he couldn’t see with his primitive telescope is there really is a cluster of stars at the heart of this web… A very compact cluster stars known as R136a. And in its midst? Twelve stars… twelve very massive and luminous stars almost exclusively of spectral type O3. Even at a distance of 180,000 light years these stars light up this nebula so brightly that if it were as close to Earth as the Orion Nebula, it would cast shadows on the night.

So what else lay hidden in the 1000 light year expanse of the cosmic web? Look beyond what you can see in visible light and think like a spider… Try infra-red. With the eyes of the Spitzer Space Telescope aimed towards NGC 2070, scientists could penetrate the dust clouds throughout the Tarantula to reveal previously hidden sites of star formation. Within the luminescent nebula, holes began to appear. These voids are created by highly energetic winds spewing out from the massive stars in the central star cluster. Like the intricate designs woven by the spider, the structures at the edges of these voids are particularly interesting. Dense pillars of gas and dust, sculpted by the stellar radiation, will be the birthplace of future generations of stars!

But like the spider web… It’s a place of death, too.

In 1987 one of the closest supernova events ever to occur near Earth happened in the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula. The light from the supernova reached Earth on February 23, 1987 and not.since 1604 had humankind been witness to such an event. Even though we were witnessing something that occurred 168,000 years in the past, those X-ray and radio emission were still just as bright as the day the highly energetic electrons and particles spewed into the interstellar medium upon the explosive death of the progenitor star. Oh, there is skeletons in the web, too. Older and weaker supernovae remnants are scattered about, their signatures as faint as the imprint of a fallen leaf that has long blown away. This “Cosmic Web” is home to many supergiant stars. At any moment, a snapshot of any dense region of supergiant stars will show a mixture of newborn stars and supernovae, the signature of stars who those that have lived fast and died young.

Many thanks to AORAIA member, Joe Brimacombe for allowing me to swipe his wonderful image and tell a story.

9 Replies to “The Cosmic Web – NGC 2070 by Joseph Brimacombe”

  1. I’ve always found this region in and around 30 Doradus fascinating indeed. Thanks for the article and the great piccie…

  2. Hey Tammy,

    ok, it’s a small point, but in my mental dictionary ‘visage’ is a person’s face. Is this what you meant? ‘Cause I don’t see it.

    But then I don’t see the man in the moon, either 🙂

    It’s a very nicely told story, for sure. And I also wish I had a high-res link!

  3. ah, you english majors… you’re all alike! always after us poor writers who tend to imbue life into inantimate objects. i have taken more than one scolding for giving life to a telescope as well, too!

    the only problem with the hi-rez links are the file sizes. when i don’t make mistakes adding the links, one of the reasons i always point out AORAIA is so folks can join to see some of the awesome work these fellows produce.

    in the very, very near future a new site is going to be opening that will also encourage all astrophotographers to contribute – – when you get a chance, you might want to have a look and possibly join in.

    no worries, though… i’ll continue to find these great shots and when time permits, research out the stories behind them and put in as large a rez file as i can!

  4. Thanks for the feedback! I never expected the image to turn out so nice. Special thanks to Tammy for her splendid piece and to Bert, director of AORAIA, for helping me collect the photons.

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