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Sculptures in space

Nebulosity in the Carina Nebula

Light-year-long pillars of cold hydrogen gas and interstellar dust in the Carina Nebula.

Enjoying a frozen treat on a hot summer day can leave a sticky mess as it melts in the Sun and deforms. In the cold vacuum of space, there is no edible ice cream, but there is radiation from massive stars that is carving away at cold molecular clouds, creating bizarre, fantasy-like structures.

These one-light-year-tall pillars of cold hydrogen and dust, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope, are located in the Carina Nebula. Violent stellar winds and powerful radiation from massive stars are sculpting the surrounding nebula. Inside the dense structures, new stars may be born.

See the full-size, high-resolution version here (new window).

This image of dust pillars in the Carina Nebula is a composite of 2005 observations taken of the region in hydrogen light (light emitted by hydrogen atoms) along with 2010 observations taken in oxygen light (light emitted by oxygen atoms), both times with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys. The immense Carina Nebula is an estimated 7,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Carina.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / ESA / Hubble Heritage Project (STScI / AURA) / M. Livio (STScI) / N. Smith (UCB).

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Hot star: don’t get too close!

WR 22 and the Carina Nebula

The hot, massive, young star in the centre of this image is WR 22, a member of the rare class of Wolf–Rayet stars, seen against the backdrop of the Carina Nebula. At the distance of the nebula, this image covers an area of 72 x 72 light-years.

A spectacular new image from the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Wide Field Imager at the La Silla Observatory in Chile shows the brilliant and unusual star WR 22 and its colourful surroundings.

WR 22 is a very hot and bright star that is shedding its atmosphere into space at a rate many millions of times faster than the Sun. It is located in the outer part of the dramatic Carina Nebula, a huge cloud of gas and dust from which it and many other stars formed.

Very massive stars live fast and die young. Some of them have such intense radiation passing through their thick atmospheres late in their lives that they shed gas into space many millions of times more quickly than relatively sedate stars such as our Sun.

These rare, very hot and massive objects are known as Wolf–Rayet stars, after the two French astronomers who first identified them in the mid-nineteenth century. Wolf-Rayet stars typically have surface temperatures between 25,000 and 50,000 degress Celsius. (The Sun’s surface temperature is only 5,500 degrees.)

WR 22 is one of the most massive examples yet measured, is one of many exceptionally brilliant stars associated with the beautiful Carina Nebula (also known as NGC 3372) in the southern Milky Way. The outer part of this huge region of star formation forms the colourful backdrop to this image.

See the full-size, high-resolution image here (0.7MB, will open in a new window)

The central part of nebula lies off to the left of WR 22, and can be seen in the wider view below.

A wider view of the Carina Nebula

A wider view of the Carina Nebula, showing WR 22 at right and a bright conglomeration at left that hides another huge and famous star, Eta Carinae.

See the full-size, high-resolution version of the wide-field image here (0.7MB, will open in a new window)

The subtle colours of the nebula are a result of the interactions between the intense ultraviolet radiation coming from hot massive stars, including WR 22, and the vast gas clouds, mostly hydrogen, from which they formed.

WR 22 is a part of a binary star system and has been measured to have a mass at least 70 times that of the Sun. Although it is over 5,000 light-years from Earth, it is so bright that it can just be faintly seen with the unaided eye under good conditions.

Adapted from information issued by ESO.

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