Categories: Astronomy

Ambitious Survey Spots Stellar Nurseries

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ESO’s VISTA telescope has begun a new survey of the Magellanic Cloud, and this spectacular image of the Tarantula Nebula is a taste of great things to come from this near-infrared scan of the more interesting galaxies in our neighborhood. This panoramic near-infrared view captures the nebula itself in great detail as well as the rich surrounding area of sky. “This view is of one of the most important regions of star formation in the local Universe — the spectacular 30 Doradus star-forming region, also called the Tarantula Nebula,” said the leader of the survey team, Maria-Rosa Cioni from the University of Hertfordshire. “At its core is a large cluster of stars called RMC 136, in which some of the most massive stars known are located.”

VISTA is a new survey telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile, and is equipped with a huge camera that detects light in the near-infrared part of the spectrum, revealing a wealth of detail about astronomical objects that gives us insight into the inner workings of astronomical phenomena. Near-infrared light has a longer wavelength than visible light, fortunately, it can pass through much of the dust that would normally obscure the views that our eyes can see. This makes it particularly useful for studying objects such as young stars that are still enshrouded in the gas and dust clouds from which they formed. Another powerful aspect of VISTA is the large area of the sky that its camera can capture in each shot.
The VISTA Magellanic Cloud Survey is one of six huge near-infrared surveys of the southern sky that will take up most of the first five years of operations of VISTA.

This project will scan a vast area — 184 square degrees of the sky (corresponding to almost one thousand times the apparent area of the full Moon) including our neighboring galaxies the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. The end result will be a detailed study of the star formation history and three-dimensional geometry of the Magellanic system.

“The VISTA images will allow us to extend our studies beyond the inner regions of the Tarantula into the multitude of smaller stellar nurseries nearby, which also harbor a rich population of young and massive stars,” said Chris Evans who is part of the VMC team. “Armed with the new, exquisite infrared images, we will be able to probe the cocoons in which massive stars are still forming today, while also looking at their interaction with older stars in the wider region.”

The wide-field image shows a host of different objects. The bright area above the centre is the Tarantula Nebula itself, with the RMC 136 cluster of massive stars in its core. To the left is the NGC 2100 star cluster. To the right is the tiny remnant of the supernova SN1987A (eso1032). Below the centre are a series of star-forming regions including NGC 2080 — nicknamed the “Ghost Head Nebula” — and the NGC 2083 star cluster.

See more images, zoomable images, and movies of the Tarantula Nebula at the ESO website.

Nancy Atkinson

Nancy has been with Universe Today since 2004. She is the author of a new book on the Apollo program, "Eight Years to the Moon," which shares the stories of 60 engineers and scientists who worked behind the scenes to make landing on the Moon possible. Her first book, "Incredible Stories from Space: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Missions Changing Our View of the Cosmos" tells the stories of those who work on NASA's robotic missions to explore the Solar System and beyond.

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