Tarantula Nebula

StarDate: May 25, 2009

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A big, fuzzy tarantula crawls through southern-hemisphere skies. It's created the cosmic "eggs" from which new stars are born -- including many stars that will die in violent explosions.

The Tarantula Nebula is in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small galaxy that's a companion to our own Milky Way. It's about 170,000 light-years away. From southern skies, it looks like a tiny, glowing cloud. Unfortunately, though, it's too far south to see from the continental United States.

The Tarantula is similar to the Orion Nebula -- a big cloud of gas and dust that's easily visible to the unaided eye in the constellation Orion. But the Tarantula -- named for its spider-like shape -- is vastly bigger. If it replaced the Orion Nebula, it would cover all of Orion and be bright enough to cast shadows here on Earth.

The Tarantula has already given birth to thousands of stars. Many of them congregate in a cluster at the nebula's center. Some of these stars are a hundred times as massive as our own Sun, so they're extremely hot. They pump out incredible amounts of ultraviolet energy, lighting up the gas around them.

These big, hot stars will live short lives. And some of them may die in titanic explosions known as supernovae. In fact, the brightest supernova visible from Earth in four centuries exploded on the outskirts of the Tarantula Nebula almost a quarter of a century ago.

Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2001, 2006, 2009

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