Perhaps some of the most awe-inspiring sights in our universe are nebulae, vast galactic clouds of dust and gas where new stars are born. One of the most well-known – the Tarantula Nebula – has been imaged many times over the years. Here’s a stunning new view of this celestial wonder from the Spitzer Space Telescope. NASA released this image (above) on January 27, 2020, just a few days before Spitzer’s mission ended.
Among its many scientific contributions, Spitzer studied comets and asteroids in our own solar system and found a previously unidentified ring around Saturn. It studied star and planet formation, the evolution of galaxies from the ancient universe to today, and the composition of interstellar dust. It also proved to be a powerful tool for detecting exoplanets and characterizing their atmospheres. Spitzer’s best-known work may be detecting the seven Earth-size planets in the TRAPPIST-1 system – the largest number of terrestrial planets ever found orbiting a single star – and determining their masses and densities.
The new high-resolution infrared image combines imaging data from several of Spitzer’s observations, the most recent of which were in February and September 2019. The image reveals very fine details that normally can’t be seen with the human eye in visible light wavelengths. As Michael Werner, Spitzer project scientist said in a statement:
I think we chose the Tarantula Nebula as one of our first targets because we knew it would demonstrate the breadth of Spitzer’s capabilities. That region has a lot of interesting dust structures and a lot of star formation happening, and those are both areas where infrared observatories can see a lot of things that you can’t see in other wavelengths.
Spitzer’s new view of the nebula is in both two and three wavelengths of infrared light. Infrared light can pass through the dust and gas clouds that visible light cannot, so astronomers use infrared telescopes like Spitzer to observe nebulae like this and see more detail.
Like other nebulae, the Tarantula Nebula is a region of very active star formation. Still-forming protostars and newly-born stars in the nebula are still enveloped in the dust and gas that they first formed in. Nebulae like this are essentially stellar nurseries.
The Tarantula Nebula is located in a smaller companion galaxy to the Milky Way called the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). The LMC is a dwarf galaxy, and is gravitationally bound to the Milky Way as a satellite, much like how a moon is a satellite of a planet.
One of the most active regions of the Tarantula Nebula is R136, where massive stars are forming very close to each other. Within an area one light-year across, there are more than 40 such stars; this is a rate of star formation much higher than elsewhere in the LMC. These stars are huge, each one being at least 50 times as massive as our sun. This is an incredible density of stars when you consider that there are no other stars at all within one light-year of our sun. These kinds of “starburst regions” have been found in other galaxies as well.
The region just outside the Tarantula Nebula is interesting as well. Supernova 1987A can be found nearby, the first supernova – an exploding star – to be discovered in 1987. After the star exploded, the energy released was equivalent to 100 million suns. The shockwave from that supernova is still moving outward. When it hits dust or other rocky debris in space, that material heats up and can be seen in infrared light. Spitzer viewed such dust particles in 2006, and determined they were composed of silicates.
1987A was monitored by Spitzer in 2019, to observe the changing brightness of the shockwave and dust. By doing so, scientists can find out how supernovas like this one affect and change their surrounding environment. The nebula is full of stars that are just being born, but like living things, they eventually die, and some do so in an explosive and spectacular manner. Life and death is a repeating cycle in the universe.
These newest images of the Tarantula Nebula are an amazing reminder of how just how jaw-droppingly beautiful our universe is. We know that from just looking with our own eyes, but when seen through the infrared eyes of special telescopes, we can see that beauty in even greater detail.
Bottom line: NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope has captured a stunning new image of the Tarantula Nebula.