In Tarantula territory

June 10, 2002

The largest emission nebula in the sky, the Tarantula Nebula (also known as NGC 2070 or 30 Doradus) is located in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), one of the satellite galaxies to our own Milky Way system. Seen far down in the southern sky at a distance of about 170,000 light-years, this beautiful nebula measures more than 1000 light-years across and extends over more than one third of a degree, almost, but not quite the size of the full moon. It received its descriptive name because of the unusual shape.

It is a splendid object with a central cluster of hot and luminous young stars that powers strong emission from hydrogen and oxygen gas, making the Tarantula Nebula an easy and impressive target for observations, even with the unaided eye. It is well visible from ESO's mountain observatories at La Silla and Paranal in Chile and it has been the object of innumerable research programmes with many different telescopes.

New images of the Tarantula Nebula have now been obtained with the Wide-Field Imager (WFI) on the MPG/ESO 2.2-m telescope at the La Silla Observatory. As the name indicates, the WFI has a comparatively large field-of-view, 34 x 34 arcmin^2, and it is therefore well suited to show the full extent of this stunning nebula. A spectacular composite colour photo has been produced from 15 individual WFI-exposures obtained in September 2000.

A large number of different and colourful objects are seen in this amazing image. The very complex nebulosity is prominent in most of the field; it predominantly emits red light from hydrogen atoms (the H-alpha spectral line at wavelength 656.2 nm) and green-blue light from hydrogen atoms (H-beta line at 486.2 nm) and oxygen ions (two [O III] lines at 495.7 and 500.7 nm). This emission is excited by the strong ultraviolet (UV) radiation emitted by hot young stars in the central cluster (known as "R136") which were born 2-3 million years ago at the heart of the Tarantula Nebula.

Throughout the field, there are several other smaller, young open stellar clusters that are still embedded in nebulosity. Two globular clusters can also be seen, and the entire field is full of stars of very different colours and luminosity - most of them belong to the LMC, but some are foreground objects in our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
The images were prepared by Mischa Schirmer at the Institut fuer Astrophysik und Extraterrestrische Forschung der Universitaet Bonn (IAEF) by means of a pipeline specialised for reduction of multiple CCD wide-field imaging camera data. The observations at La Silla were performed by Thomas Erben and Marco Lombardi (both IAEF Bonn).

The text of this ESO Press Release, with seven photos, is available at:


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