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Tarantula Nebula

July 5, 2016

A giant tarantula creeps through a nearby galaxy. It’s not trying to be stealthy, though — it’s the galaxy’s brightest feature. In fact, it’s the brightest stellar nursery in the entire Local Group — the cluster of dozens of galaxies that includes the Milky Way.

The Tarantula Nebula is in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a companion to the Milky Way that’s just 160,000 light-years away.

Over the last few million years, the nebula has given birth to millions of stars. That’s probably the result of a close encounter with a smaller galaxy. The gravity of the other galaxy caused large clouds of gas and dust to collapse, forming new stars.

The Tarantula incorporates several star clusters — groups of stars that all formed at about the same time. The most impressive is R136. It contains at least a half-million stars, most of which are no more than three million years old.

Most of those stars are the mass of the Sun or smaller. But a few are monsters that are many times heavier than the Sun. At least nine of them are more than a hundred times the Sun’s mass. And the biggest of all is more than 250 times the Sun’s mass — the heaviest star yet seen in any galaxy, including our own. More about that tomorrow.

Within the next few million years, many of these stars are likely to blast themselves to bits as supernovae. In fact, a star on the outskirts of the nebula did just that back in 1987 — a brilliant outburst from the brilliant tarantula.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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