In celebration of the 17th anniversary of the launch and deployment of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, a team of astronomers released one of the largest panoramic images ever taken with Hubble's cameras. It is a 50-light-year-wide view of the central region of the Carina Nebula where a turbulent storm of star birth — and death — is taking place.
Hubble's view of the nebula shows stellar evolution in a new level of detail. The nebula's fantasy-like landscape is sculpted by the action of outflowing winds and scorching ultraviolet radiation from the monster stars that inhabit this region. In the process, these stars are shredding the surrounding material that is the last trace of the giant cloud from which the stars were born.
The immense nebula contains at least a dozen brilliant stars that are estimated to be at least 50 to 100 times the mass of our Sun. The most unique and magnificent inhabitant is the star Eta Carinae, at far left. Eta Carinae is in the final stages of its brief and eruptive lifespan, as evidenced by two billowing lobes of gas and dust that foretell its upcoming explosion as a titanic supernova.
The fireworks in the Carina Nebula started three million years ago when the first generation of newborn stars condensed and ignited in the middle of a huge cloud of cold molecular hydrogen. Radiation from these stars carved out an expanding bubble of hot gas. The island-like clumps of dark clouds scattered across the nebula are composed of dust and gas that are resisting being eaten away.
The hurricane blast of stellar winds and blistering ultraviolet radiation within the cavity is now compressing the surrounding walls of cold hydrogen. This is triggering a second stage of new star formation.
Our Sun and our solar system may have been born inside such a cosmic crucible 4.6 billion years ago. In looking at the Carina Nebula we are seeing the beginnings of star making as it commonly occurs along the dense spiral arms of a galaxy.
The immense nebula is an estimated 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina.
This jaw-dropping image of the Carina Nebula is just the latest of Hubble's many accomplishments. During its 17 years in space, Hubble has looked close to home at our solar system planets, has gazed far into space to see galaxies in their infancy, has found evidence of dark energy, and has detected invisible matter that makes up the bulk of the material in our universe.
In our solar system neighborhood, the telescope witnessed pieces of a broken-up comet smash into Jupiter, giving the planet several "black eyes." Hubble also spied two new moons orbiting Pluto. Beyond our solar system, the telescope took snapshots of the "last hurrah" of Sun-like stars, when they shed their outer layers of gas and begin to glow as planetary nebulae. The telescope also watched the aftermath of a supernova 1987A, the explosive death of a massive star. The Hubble observations of SN 1987A helped astronomers rewrite the textbooks on exploding stars.
Astronomers also used Hubble to conduct a census of Jupiter-sized planets residing near the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. The telescope found 16 alien worlds, suggesting that there may be billions of Jupiter-sized planets in our galaxy. Hubble also was used to sample the atmosphere of a known planet outside our solar system. With Hubble's help, astronomers found sodium, oxygen, and carbon in the atmosphere of HD209458b, making the observations the first direct measurements of the chemical composition of an extrasolar planet's atmosphere.
Gazing even farther across the universe, Hubble helped astronomers calculate a precise age for the universe. Astronomers now think the cosmos is about 13.7 billion years old.
Galaxies are everywhere in space, but Hubble looked far across our cosmos to see infant galaxies. The Hubble observations provided solid evidence that galaxies grew over time to become the giant galaxies we see today.
By witnessing bursts of light from faraway exploding stars, Hubble helped astronomers discover that an invisible, mysterious force called dark energy exists. Physicist Albert Einstein predicted its existence early last century. Astronomers made a three-dimensional map of another invisible substance called dark matter, thanks to Hubble observations. Dark matter's gravity allows normal matter — gas, dust, and other visible material — to collect and build up into stars and galaxies.
NOTE: The Carina Nebula image is a mosaic assembled from 48 frames taken with the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys. Color information was added to the image using data taken at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.
"Tales of … Extreme star birth in the Carina Nebula" explores the formation of stars in the Carina Nebula as a result of the death of a previous generation of stars. The reading also looks at some of the Hubble Space Telescope's greatest achievements during its 17 years in orbit.
Teachers can use this resource as:
A content reading selection. Teachers should discuss the meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary prior to having students read this selection.
An engagement activity. Have students read the selection. Ask them to describe how the death of one generation of stars can lead to the birth of the next.
An inquiry tool. Propose a question, such as, "What can be learned about star formation by studying the Carina Nebula?" or "What do you think is the Hubble Space Telescope's greatest achievement?" Have students read the selection and write down as many questions as they can about the information in the text.
A source of information. Students can describe the events that led up to the formation of the next generation of stars in the nebula.
HubbleSite press release: "The Carina Nebula: Star Birth in the Extreme"
Background information: "Hubble Space Telescope's Top Science Findings (2007)" and "Hubble Trivia 2007"