November 10, 2013
The South Pillar Region of the Carina Nebula
Image Credit: NASA, SSC, JPL, Caltech, Nathan Smith (Univ. of Colorado), et al.
This image shows the South Pillar region of the expansive emission nebula known as the Carina Nebula (NGC 3372), located between 6,500 and 10,000 light-years away from Earth in the Carina–Sagittarius Arm of our Milky Way Galaxy, in the southern constellation of Carina (the Keel).
The Carina Nebula is a colossal cloud of gas and dust of about 200 light-years across. Though it is dominated by the huge star Eta Carinae, it also houses the star’s slightly less massive siblings, in addition to younger generations of stars.
Eta Carinae is a bright supergiant star of only 2 to 3 million years old with more than 100 times the mass of our Sun, and a luminosity of about four million times that of the Sun. It is so massive that it can barely hold itself together. Over the years, it has brightened and faded as material has shot away from its surface. Some astronomers think Eta Carinae might die in a supernova blast within our lifetime.
These fantastic pillars of glowing dust and gas embedded with newborn stars were sculpted by the intense wind and radiation from Eta Carinae and its siblings. This process triggered the birth of the new stars.
Still, this remarkable star-forming region is largely obscured by nebular dust and only revealed in penetrating infrared light by Spitzer. This telescope has shown that the whole environment is swarming with embryonic stars of an unprecedented multitude of different masses and ages.
The star embryos (yellow or white) are tucked inside finger-like pillars of thick dust (pink). Hot gases are green and foreground stars are blue. Not all of the star embryos can be easily spotted. Eta Carinae itself is off the top left of this image, with the bright-tipped dust pillars pointing suggestively toward the massive star’s position.
Visible-light pictures of the Carina Nebula show quite a different view. Dust pillars are fewer and appear dark because the dust is soaking up visible light. Spitzer’s infrared detectors cut through this dust, allowing it to see the heat from warm, embedded star embryos, as well as deeper, more buried pillars.
This false-color image was taken by the infrared array camera on the Spitzer Space Telescope. It is a three-color composite of invisible light, showing emissions from wavelengths of 3.6 microns (blue), 4.5 microns (green), 5.8 microns (orange), and 8.0 microns (red). The visible-light picture is from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.