Astronomers map violent star formation in a nebula outside our galaxy

Astronomers have revealed intricate details about the star-forming region 30 Doradus, also known as the Tarantula Nebula, using new observations from the Atacama Large Millimeter / Submillimeter Array (ALMA). We can now see the nebula in a new light, with chewed gas clouds that give a glimpse of how massive stars shape this region.

“These fragments may be the remnants of once larger clouds that were torn to pieces by the enormous energy released by young, massive stars, a process called feedback,” said Tony Wong, who led the research on 30 Doradus presented today at the American meeting of the Astronomical Society (AAS) and published in The Astrophysical Journal. Astronomers initially thought that the gas in these areas would be too sparse and overwhelmed by this turbulent feedback for gravity to pull it together and form new stars. But the new data also reveals much denser filaments, where the role of gravity is still important. “Our results suggest that even in the presence of very strong feedback, gravity can exert a strong influence and lead to further star formation,” adds Wong, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA.

Located in the great Magellanic cloud, a satellite galaxy in our own Milky Way, the Tarantula Nebula is one of the brightest and most active star-forming regions in our galactic quarter, located approximately 170,000 light-years from Earth. At heart, some of the most massive stars are known, some with more than 150 times the mass of our sun, making the region perfect for studying how gas clouds collapse under the influence of gravity and form new stars.

“What makes 30 Doradus unique is that it is close enough that we can study in detail how stars form, but its properties are similar to those found in galaxies far, far away when the Universe was young,” said Guido De Marchi, a scientist at the European Space Agency (ESA) and co-author of the paper showing the new research. “With 30 Doradus, we can study how stars came into being 10 billion years ago, when most stars were born. »

While most previous studies of the Tarantula Nebula have focused on its center, astronomers have long known that massive star formation also occurs elsewhere. To better understand this process, the team made high-resolution observations that covered a large area of ​​the nebula. Using ALMA, they measured the light emission from carbon monoxide. This allowed them to map the nebulae’s large, cold gas clouds that collapse to give birth to new stars – and how they change as enormous amounts of energy are released from these young stars.

“We expected to find that the parts of the cloud closest to young massive stars would show the clearest signs of gravity overwhelmed by the feedback,” Wong said. “Rather, we found that gravity is still important in these feedback-exposed areas, at least for sufficiently dense parts of the cloud.”

In the image released by ESO today, we see the new ALMA data superimposed on an earlier infrared image of the same region showing bright stars and faint pink clouds of hot gas, taken with the Very Large ESO’s Telescope (VLT) and ESO’s Visible and Infrared . Study Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA). The composition shows the distinct web-like shape of the gas clouds in the Tarantula nebula that gave the Spider its name. The new ALMA data includes the image’s clear red-yellow streaks: very cold, dense gas that may one day collapse and form stars.

The new research contains detailed clues as to how gravity behaves in the star-forming areas of the Tarantula Nebula, but the work is far from complete. “There’s still a lot to do with this amazing dataset, and we’re releasing it publicly to encourage other researchers to conduct further research,” Wong concludes.

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