Hubble’s new view of the Tarantula Nebula

Also known as 30 Doradus, the Tarantula Nebula is the brightest star-forming region in our part of the galaxy. Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), it contains the most massive and hottest stars known. The Tarantula Nebula has been a repeated target for the Hubble since the telescope’s early years.

Star formation is an extremely detailed process, and the bright star-forming regions of the Tarantula Nebula are a natural laboratory for studying the interplay between stars, gas, and dust. This image is from two Hubble observing programs that targeted 30 Doradus. Scylla studies how interstellar dust interacts with starlight in a variety of environments, and Ulysses studies the stars themselves in 30 Doradus.

30 Doradus is packed with interesting observation targets. This selected image mainly shows star cluster NGC 2060. NGC 2060 is a loose star cluster in one of the nebula’s superbubbles, a cavity hundreds of light-years across. The cluster is approximately 10 million years old.

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This image highlights some of the interesting objects in the leading Hubble image. Image credits: ESA/Hubble & NASA, C Murray, E Sabbi; Acknowledgments: Y.-H. Chu

For context, the image below is a broad image of the Tarantula Nebula showing where the Hubble image is located.

This image shows the broader structure of the Tarantula Nebula, with the Hubble image shown outlined in yellow. Photo credit: NASA/ESA

Astronomers can study several aspects of star formation in the region. Multiple observing programs from multiple telescopes over the years have studied how hot, young, massive stars form bubbles in the gas. They’ve also studied strange, rapidly rotating stars. They have studied the dark alleys of thick dust and bok globules. There are even supernova remnants in the regions as well as HII regions. Almost every object of study is present in the region, and there’s even a stellar-mass black hole. The region is scientifically important because it allows for surveys spanning multiple epochs, meaning astronomers can study stars at all stages of evolution.

This annotated map identifies several prominent features in an image of the Tarantula Nebula. Credit: NASA, ESA, D. Lennon and E. Sabbi (ESA/STScI), J. Anderson, SE de Mink, R. van der Marel, T. Sohn and N. Walborn (STScI), N. Bastian (Excellence Cluster , Munich), L. Bedin (INAF, Padua), E. Bressert (ESO), P. Crowther (Sheffield), A. de Koter (Amsterdam), C. Evans (UKATC/STFC, Edinburgh), A Smith (IAC , Tenerife), N. Langer (AifA, Bonn), I. Platais (JHU) and H. Sana (Amsterdam)

The fast-rotating star in the image is named VFTS 102. VFTS (VLT-FLAMES Tarantula Survey) is the name of a stellar survey in the region that has attempted to characterize more than 900 stars. One of the things VFTS studied was how rotation affects the evolution of stars. VFTS 102 is the second fastest rotating massive star known, spinning at about two million kilometers per hour. It spins so fast that centripetal force flattens the star, forming a disk of stellar material around it. It may have reached such high speed due to interactions with a binary companion.

This is an artist’s concept of the rapidly rotating, massive, bright young star named VFTS 102. Image credits: By ESA/Hubble, CC BY 4.0,

TLD1 pictured is a cluster of young stars averaging about 3.3 million years old. These stars have blown away most of the gas around them and are clearly visible as a cluster of hot blue stars. As the giant molecular clouds collapsed to form 30 Doradus, they fragmented into layers, filaments and clumps, which subsequently formed stars. TLD1 likely formed where leaves and filaments crossed. This allows star-forming gas to be channeled into a smaller region, creating clusters of simultaneous stars.

Two HII regions are labeled in the image, although some consider the entire nebula to be an HII region. HII regions are ionized hydrogen. They form when newly formed, massive young stars ionize hydrogen with strong UV radiation. The UV causes the hydrogen atoms to lose their electrons, giving the atom a positive charge. HII regions can reach temperatures of up to 10,000 Kelvin (1700 C; 3100 F.).

HII gas is part of the star formation process. The massive young stars that produce the HII also carve cavities out of the surrounding gas. As the HII is hotter, it flows into these cavities. It can smash into denser, colder gas at the edge of these cavities, and the resulting shock wave can trigger new births of stars. The TLD1 cluster in the image started out as an HII region, and the stars that formed there eventually blew away all the hydrogen gas. The HII regions in the image will likely be star clusters in the future.

One of the joys of new telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope is that they give us a new, impressive view of a familiar region or object in space. This applies to the JWST and the Tarantula Nebula. The power of the JWST revealed tens of thousands of stars never seen before. Surrounding these stars are dust that remained impenetrable until the JWST began operations.

The JWST’s powerful infrared capabilities revealed tens of thousands of stars hidden in the dust. The blue stars in the center are hot, massive young stars. The rust-colored regions are cooler, denser gas rich in hydrocarbons that will form future stars. Image Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

Astronomers of the past would be shocked at the quality of astronomical images available today. With just a few clicks of the mouse, anyone interested can marvel at regions such as the Tarantula Nebula. But it wasn’t always like that. Just a few decades ago, crude images with hand-drawn labels were the tools of the astronomical trade.

This image is from a 1961 paper by MW Feast entitled A Study of the 30 Doradus Region of the Large Magellanic Cloud. It focuses on R140, one of Dorado’s 30 massive Wolfe-Rayet stars. Photo credit: MW Fest 1961, MNRAS.

The Tarantula Nebula will hold our attention for a long time to come. Astronomers sometimes refer to it as the “Rosetta Stone” because it contains everything from cold clouds of gas – the progenitors of stars – to supernova remnants, the final states of massive stars. Its proximity means astronomers can study the big picture, how star clusters and gas and bubbles interact, as well as individual stars in detail.

30 Doradus is truly a laboratory for star birth and evolution.

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