The Tarantula Nebula, an H II region in the Large Magellanic Cloud

The Tarantula Nebula, an H II region in the Large Magellanic Cloud

The Tarantula Nebula (also known as 30 Doradus and NGC 2070) in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), is an expanding emission nebula, H II region and stellar nursery, some 650 to 1,000 light-years across that lies 160,000 light-years away in the southern constellation Dorado.

The nebula is extremely luminous, and is the largest and most active starburst region known in the Local Group of galaxies. It is thought to contain more than half a million solar masses in gas and hosts some of the most massive stars known.

The Tarantula Nebula owes its name to its glowing filaments that resemble spider legs. They extend from a central ‘body’ where a huge compact cluster of hot stars, known as R136, illuminates and shapes the nebula. This name, of the biggest spiders on the Earth, is also very fitting in view of the gigantic proportions of the celestial nebula.

R136, only between one and two million years old, has an approximate diameter 35 light-years and an estimated mass of 450,000 solar masses, suggesting it will likely become a globular cluster in the future. These thousands massive stars are blowing off material and producing intense radiation along with powerful winds. The gas has been heated to millions of degrees by these stellar winds and also by supernova explosions. X-rays are emitted from shock fronts formed by this high-energy stellar activity.

The Tarantula Nebula also contains an older star cluster, known as Hodge 301, with an age of 20–25 million years. The most massive stars of this cluster have already exploded in supernovae.

In the outskirts of the Tarantula are the remains of a star that exploded and was seen with the unaided eye in February 1987. Supernova SN 1987A, as it is known, is the brightest supernova since the one observed by Kepler in 1604 and is known to be surrounded by a ring.

Image Credit: R Jay GaBany

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