Tarantula Nebula photographed in unprecedented detail


Just 161,000 light-years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, is the Tarantula Nebula. Although the subtle swirls of cloud convey a sense of calm, the Tarantula Nebula is actually one of the largest and most violent star-forming regions in our Local Group.

The Local Group is essentially our galactic neighborhood of which our own Milky Way is a part. The largest member of the group is the Andromeda Galaxy, while keen eyes (under both dark and clear skies) may also be able to spot the more distant Triangulum Galaxy thanks to its relatively bright apparent magnitude. Dozens of smaller dwarf galaxies are also members of the Local Group.

Viewed with JWST’s near-infrared (NIRCam) camera, this incredible mosaic image spans 340 light-years across, though the nebula’s total width is more than 1,000 light-years. The nebula is named for the web-like appearance of its dusty filaments seen in previous images, with the silk-lined cavity at its center resembling the home of a burrowing tarantula.

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Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, the Tarantula Nebula was imaged in unprecedented detail by JWST’s near-infrared (NIRCam) camera © NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

The nebula is a breeding ground for some of the hottest and most massive stars known to astronomers, and at its center is star cluster R136, its most active region, sparkling blue with massive young stars.

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“R136 is at the center of the larger cluster called NGC2070,” says Professor Mark McCaughrean, Senior Adviser for Science and Exploration at the European Space Agency (ESA).

“R136 is a huge cluster of young stars, far outstripping anything in our own Milky Way at almost half a million solar masses. It’s often suggested that it could be a protoglobular cluster, and its tremendous cumulative luminosity is what illuminates the Tarantula Nebula, of which the new JWST image shows only a small fraction,” explains McCaughrean.

Severe radiation has blown away the dusty cocoons that once surrounded these protostars. Only the densest material remains, sculpted into pillars and ridges that can resist erosion by those torrential stellar winds.

Within these pillars are other newly emerging protostars. They, too, will eventually emerge from their own cosmic cocoons and form the mist in turn.

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“The JWST image of the Tarantula Nebula was created with mosaics made through four separate infrared filters, F090W, F200W, F335M, and F444W, at 0.9, 2.0, 3.35, and 4.44 microns, respectively.” says McCaughrean.

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“The first, second and fourth filters are all broadband and capture a lot of starlight and nebula emissions. The third, the F335M filter, isolates a key emission line of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a strong dust indicator.”

The Tarantula Nebula imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope © NASA, ESA and E. Sabbi/STScI

“The color coding in the image is F090W as blue, F200W as green, F335M as orange and F444W as red. The latter two filters make the dust in the region ‘glow’ with orange-red colors. In the corresponding Hubble images, these regions are dark,” explains McCaughrean.

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