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Scientists map violent nebula to discover how stars were formed 10bn years ago

Astronomers have mapped violent star formation in nebula outside our galaxy (ESO/PA)
Astronomers have mapped violent star formation in nebula outside our galaxy (ESO/PA)

Astronomers have mapped violent star formation outside our galaxy.

The researchers unveiled intricate details of the star-forming region 30 Doradus, also known as the Tarantula Nebula, using new observations from the Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array (Alma).

In a high-resolution image released by the European Southern Observatory (ESO), the nebula is seen in a new light, with wispy gas clouds that provide insight into how massive stars shape this region.

Tony Wong, who led the research on 30 Doradus, said: “These fragments may be the remains of once-larger clouds that have been shredded by the enormous energy being released by young and massive stars, a process dubbed feedback.”

It was originally thought these areas were not capable of forming new stars.

Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way, the Tarantula Nebula is one of the brightest and most active star-forming regions in our galactic neighbourhood, lying about 170,000 light-years away from Earth.

It is home to some of the most massive stars known – a few with more than 150 times the mass of our Sun – making the region perfect for studying how gas clouds collapse under gravity to form new stars.

Guido De Marchi, a scientist at the European Space Agency (ESA) and a co-author of the paper, said: “What makes 30 Doradus unique is that it is close enough for us to study in detail how stars are forming, and yet its properties are similar to those found in very distant galaxies, when the universe was young.

“Thanks to 30 Doradus, we can study how stars used to form 10 billion years ago when most stars were born.”

While most of the previous studies of the Tarantula Nebula have focused on its centre, astronomers have long known that massive star formation is happening elsewhere too.

To better understand this process, researchers conducted high-resolution observations covering a large region of the nebula.

In the image released by ESO, the new Alma data is overlaid on a previous infrared image of the same region that shows bright stars and light pinkish clouds of hot gas, taken with ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) and ESO’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (Vista).

A distinct, web-like shape of the Tarantula Nebula’s gas clouds that gave rise to its spidery name, can be seen.

The new data is made up of the bright red-yellow streaks in the image – very cold and dense gas that could one day collapse and form stars.

The research, presented at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting and published in The Astrophysical Journal, contains detailed clues about how gravity behaves in the Tarantula Nebula’s star-forming regions.

But researchers say more work is needed, and they are encouraging other researchers to conduct new investigations.