Bad Astronomy

This Tarantula is definitely deadly

If there were one place in the local Universe I would not want to be, it would be in the center of the Tarantula Nebula.

Chandra X-ray view of the Tarantula Nebula
Chandra’s X-Ray view of the Tarantula Nebula. Credit: NASA/CXC/Penn State/L.Townsley, et al.

This is a giant, vast, meganormous cloud of gas furiously churning out stars. It’s too huge to comprehend; it’s 800 light years across. For comparison, the nearby Orion Nebula is maybe 50 light years across, tops. So we’re talking monster gas cloud here. Happily, it’s 165,000 or so light years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a companion galaxy to the Milky Way.

Still, it gets scarier. When any star-forming cloud gets going, lots of massive stars get made. They live short lives then explode in titanic events called supernovae. The Tarantula has three huge bubbles inside it, cavities plowed up by exploding stars. Near the center of the cloud they have intersected, and there sits the cluster R136, another giant in its class. It has at least 200 massive stars, and who knows how many smaller ones, drowned out in the glare of their luminous brethren. A lot of the stars in R136 are gonna blow someday soon, too.

If you found yourself suddenly transported to the Tarantula, you’d be fried, battered, irradiated, vaporized, suffocated (of course: it’s still a pretty hard vacuum by Earth standards), and probably just pretty damn unhappy.

Those stars in R136 are flooding the gas cloud with X-rays, but it’s probably the long-dead supernovae that are lighting up the gas as seen in this Chandra X-ray Observatory image of the Tarantula. It’s the deepest X-ray image ever taken of the cloud, totaling 31 hours of exposure time. Scientists will plumb that data, looking for insight into how these massive stars formed, how the older ones died, and just what’s going on in this mind-numbingly violent region of space.

I wonder when the next star to detonate will let go in that cloud. When it does, it’ll be a cornucopia of science for astronomers. The cluster and cloud are too far away to hurt us, but the light show should be pretty cool to watch unfold.