Looking Down The Mouth Of An Interstellar Cavern

Jan 06, 2006
Looking Down The Mouth Of An Interstellar Cavern
Image: Gemini Legacy Image of superbubble complex N44 as imaged with GMOS on the Gemini South Telescope in Chile. Composite color image by Traivs Rector, University of Alaska Anchorage.

A storm of billowing clouds blown by the winds from massive stars, and set aglow by their light, is the focus of a striking image released today by Gemini Observatory.

Known as the N44 superbubble complex, this cloudy tempest is dominated by a vast bubble about 325 by 250 light-years across. A cluster of massive stars inside the cavern has cleared away gas to form a distinctive mouth-shaped hollow shell.

While astronomers do not agree on exactly how this bubble has evolved for up to the past 10 million years, they do know that the central cluster of massive stars is responsible for the cloud's unusual appearance. It is likely that the explosive death of one or more of the cluster's most massive and short-lived stars played a key role in the formation of the large bubble.

"This region is like a giant laboratory providing us with a glimpse into many unique phenomena," said Sally Oey of the University of Michigan, who has studied this object extensively. "Observations from space have even revealed x-ray-emitting gas escaping from this superbubble, and while this is expected, this is the only object of its kind where we have actually seen it happening."

One of the mysteries surrounding this object points to the role that supernova explosions (marking the destruction of the most massive of the central cluster's stars) could have played in sculpting the cloud.

Philip Massey of Lowell Observatory, who studied this region along with Oey, adds "When we look at the speed of the gases in this cloud we find inconsistencies in the size of the bubble and the expected velocities of the winds from the central cluster of massive stars. Supernovae, the ages of the central stars, or the orientation and shape of the cloud might explain this, but the bottom line is that there's still lots of exciting science to be done here and these new images will undoubtedly help."

The Gemini data used to produce this image are being released to the astronomical community for further research and follow- up analysis. The image provides one of the most detailed views ever obtained of this relatively large region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to the Milky Way, located some 150,000 light- years away and visible from the Southern Hemisphere.

The images captured light of specific colors that reveal the compression of material and the presence of gases (primarily excited hydrogen gas and lesser amounts of oxygen and "shocked" sulfur) in the cloud.

Multiple smaller bubbles appear in the image as bulbous growths clinging to the central superbubble. Most of these regions were probably formed as part of the same process that shaped the central cluster. Their formation could also have been "sparked" by compression as the central stars pushed the surrounding gas outward. Our view into this cavern could really be like looking through an elongated tube, which lends the object its monstrous mouth-like appearance.

The images used to produce the color composite were obtained with the Gemini Multi-object Spectrograph (GMOS) at the Gemini South Telescope on Cerro Pachón in Chile. The color image was produced by Travis Rector of the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Source: Gemini Observatory

Explore further: Dawn spirals closer to Ceres, returns a new view

Related Stories

Hubble observes one-of-a-kind star nicknamed 'Nasty'

May 21, 2015

Astronomers using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope have uncovered surprising new clues about a hefty, rapidly aging star whose behavior has never been seen before in our Milky Way galaxy. In fact, the star is ...

A conversation with astronomer Dimitri Mawet

May 18, 2015

Associate Professor of Astronomy Dimitri Mawet has joined Caltech from the Paranal Observatory in Chile, where he was a staff astronomer for the Very Large Telescope. After earning his PhD at the University ...

Extremely young stellar clump in the distant universe

May 15, 2015

As part of an observing program carried out with the Subaru Telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope, a group of researchers from the Service d'Astrophysique- Laboratoire AIM of CEA-IRFU led by Anita Zanella ...

Hubble catches a stellar exodus in action

May 14, 2015

Using NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have captured for the first time snapshots of fledgling white dwarf stars beginning their slow-paced, 40-million-year migration from the crowded center of ...

Astronomers baffled by discovery of rare quasar quartet

May 14, 2015

Using the W. M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, a group of astronomers led by Joseph Hennawi of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy have discovered the first quadruple quasar: four rare active black holes ...

Recommended for you

Dawn spirals closer to Ceres, returns a new view

3 hours ago

A new view of Ceres, taken by NASA's Dawn spacecraft on May 23, shows finer detail is becoming visible on the dwarf planet. The spacecraft snapped the image at a distance of 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers) ...

NASA telescopes set limits on space-time quantum 'foam'

9 hours ago

A team of scientists has used X-ray and gamma-ray observations of some of the most distant objects in the universe to better understand the nature of space and time. Their results set limits on the quantum ...

Shining message about the end of the Dark Ages

11 hours ago

An international team, including researchers from the Centre for Astronomy of Heidelberg University (ZAH), has discovered three "cosmic Methusalems" from the earliest years of the universe. These unusual stars are about 13 ...

The kinematics of merging galaxies

12 hours ago

The unprecedented sensitivity of space telescopes has powered a revolution over the past decade in our understanding of galaxies in the young universe during its first billion years of existence. These primitive ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.