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News Release 40 of 71

July 26, 2001 09:00 AM (EDT)

News Release Number: STScI-2001-21

Hubble's Panoramic Portrait of a Vast Star-Forming Region

July 26, 2001: NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has snapped a panoramic portrait of a vast, sculpted landscape of gas and dust where thousands of stars are being born. This fertile star-forming region, called the 30 Doradus Nebula, has a sparkling stellar centerpiece: the most spectacular cluster of massive stars in our cosmic neighborhood of about 25 galaxies. The mosaic picture shows that ultraviolet radiation and high-speed material unleashed by the stars in the cluster, called R136 [the large blue blob left of center], are weaving a tapestry of creation and destruction, triggering the collapse of looming gas and dust clouds and forming pillar-like structures that are incubators for nascent stars.

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Q & A: Understanding the Discovery

  1. 1. Where is the new generation of stars?

  2. The new stellar nursery is about 30 to 50 light-years from the central cluster. Most of the stars in the nursery are not visible because they are still encased in their cocoons of gas and dust.

    The stars formed from the collapse of huge clouds of dust and gas around the massive star cluster, R136. Powerful "stellar winds" (streams of material traveling at several million miles an hour) released by the R136 cluster are compressing the inner regions of the gas and dust clouds. The intense pressure is triggering the collapse of parts of the clouds, producing a new generation of star formation around the central cluster.

  3. 2. How did the pillar-like structures form?

  4. Previous Hubble telescope observations revealed that the process of "triggered" star formation often involves massive pillars of material that point toward the central cluster. Such pillars form when particularly dense clouds of gas and dust shield columns of material behind them from the blistering radiation and strong winds released by massive stars, like the stars in R136. This protected material becomes the pillars where stars can form and grow. The Hubble telescope first spied these pillars of stellar creation when it captured close-up views of the Eagle Nebula.

    The new image of 30 Doradus shows numerous pillars — each several light-years long — oriented toward the central cluster. These pillars, which resemble tiny fingers, are similar in size to those in the Eagle Nebula.

  5. 3. How massive are the stars in the R136 cluster?

  6. R136 contains several dozen of the most massive stars known, each about 100 times the mass of the Sun and about 10 times as hot. These stellar behemoths all formed at the same time about 2 million years ago.

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Credit: NASA, N. Walborn and J. Maíz-Apellániz (Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD), R. Barbá (La Plata Observatory, La Plata, Argentina)