Survey spots stellar nurseries

A new camera that detects light in the near-infrared will provide a detailed study of star formation in the Magellanic Clouds.Provided by ESO, Garching, Germany
By | Published: August 11, 2010
Tarantula Nebula
VISTA Magellanic Cloud Survey view of the Tarantula Nebula.
August 11, 2010
Astronomers scanning the skies as part of the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) Magellanic Cloud survey have obtained a spectacular picture of the Tarantula Nebula in our neighboring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. This panoramic near-infrared view captures the nebula itself in great detail as well as the rich surrounding area of sky. The image was obtained at the start of an ambitious survey of our neighboring galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, and their environment.

“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 Maria-Rosa Cioni from the University of Hertfordshire in the United Kingdom. “At its core is a large cluster of stars called RMC 136 in which some of the most massive stars known are located.”

ESO’s VISTA telescope is a new survey telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. VISTA is equipped with a camera that detects light in the near-infrared part of the spectrum, revealing a wealth of detail about astronomical objects that gives scientists insight into the inner workings of astronomical phenomena. Near-infrared light has a longer wavelength than visible light, so astronomers cannot see it directly, but it can pass through much of the dust that would normally obscure their view. 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.

This image is the latest view from the VISTA Magellanic Cloud Survey (VMC). The project will scan a vast area — 184 square degrees of the sky — corresponding to almost 1,000 times the apparent area of the Full Moon, including our neighboring Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. The end result will be a detailed study of the star formation history and 3-D 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 that also harbor a rich population of young and massive stars,” said Chris Evans from 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 center 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. Below the center are a series of star-forming regions including NGC 2080 &#8212 nicknamed the Ghost Head Nebula — and the NGC 2083 star cluster.