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Hubblecast 09: Extreme star cluster bursts into life!

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The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured a spectacular image of NGC 3603, a giant nebula hosting one of the most prominent massive young clusters in the Milky Way. This is a splendid location for continuing our detailed studies of stellar birth in star forming regions. This is the Hubblecast! News and Images from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. Travelling through time and space with our host Doctor J a.k.a. Dr Joe Liske. Welcome to the Hubblecast! Today we are going to travel to the heart of a massive cluster of young stars that lies deep inside a vast nebula of gas and dust. The nebula is called NGC 3603 and it is located about 20,000 light-years from Earth in the Carina spiral arm of our own Milky Way galaxy. Now it turns out that the nebula is actually the nursery of the star cluster. It is thought that the nebula contains hundreds of thousands of solar masses worth of gas, and only about one million years ago, some of that gas collapsed in on itself and formed probably all of the stars in the cluster at more or less the same time in a massive burst of star formation. Today we see the result as a glittering collection of stars surrounded by a dense cloud of hydrogen gas. In this new detailed image from Hubble we can see thousands of young blue stars sparkling against their maternal nebula. But this is not as tranquil a place as you might think. Some of the action is still going on. The strong ultraviolet radiation and the winds from these newborn stars are shaping and sculpting the surrounding gas, carving out a huge cavity into the nebula. A team of astronomers was able to use the Hubble Space Telescope to peer into the heart of a star forming region which was first observed in 1834 by Sir John Herschel, the son of the world-renowned astronomer Sir William Herschel. They were able to make detailed observations of stars whose masses differ but whose ages are similar. Because of this fact astronomers were able to study a wide range of stars at different points in their respective life cycles and make comparisons with other similar star clusters. The new Hubble image is full of interesting objects for astronomers to study. Here at the top right of the image we see a handful of Bok Globules. These objects were first observed in the 1940s by astronomer Bart Bok. They are some of the coldest objects in the Universe and they are dense clouds of gas and dust (of around ten to fifty solar masses) and they are collapsing to form new stars. Around the cluster near the densest part of the nebula we see these huge pillars of gas pointing away from cluster’s core. These were shaped by the massive young cluster’s stars and eventually they will be dispersed into interstellar space. One of the most interesting objects in the image is this seemingly innocuous bright star. The star is designated Sher 25 and it is actually a blue supergiant nearing the very end of its life. Astronomers think that in the not too distant future Sher 25 will explode as a tremendous event like supernova 1987A which has been observed by Hubble on many occasions. In doing so it will seed space with the heavy elements necessary for planet formation. Perhaps it will even trigger a new wave of star formation in a nearby nebula. For now though astronomers using the Hubble are interested in the stars within the massive young cluster at the heart of NGC 3603. Several stars at the cluster’s core have caused astronomers to be deceived. The huge stars in the innermost regions of the cluster appeared to be far more massive than our current theoretical limits dictate. Nothing escapes the sharp eye of Hubble though as it was able to show that these stars are in fact the light from several stars blended together. They appear as one star but are actually composed of two or even three components. This agrees well with previous observations of these apparently ‘heavyweight’ objects as composed of several stars of around 80 to 120 solar masses each. The new Hubble image is full of amazing detail. Not only are we seeing a whole cluster of stars just one million years after its birth, but there is also one star that is about to go supernova in a gigantic explosion that will be seen across large parts of the Galaxy. In NGC 3603 we are literally seeing the birth and death of stars right before our eyes. So, this apparently picturesque stellar nursery is in fact the site of some pretty extreme astronomy! This is Dr J signing off for the Hubblecast. Once again nature has surprised us beyond our wildest imagination … Hubblecast is produced by ESA/Hubble at the European Southern Observatory in Germany. The Hubble mission is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency.

Video Details

Duration: 6 minutes and 12 seconds
Country: Germany
Language: English
Producer: Lars Lindberg Christensen
Director: Lars Lindberg Christensen
Views: 141
Posted by: esahubble on Feb 25, 2010

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured a spectacular image of NGC 3603, a giant nebula hosting one of the most prominent massive young clusters in the Milky Way. This is a splendid location for continued studies of stellar birth in star forming regions.

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