Superstars Blaze to Life in Companion Galaxy

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“If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one. Now I am become Death, the destroyer of

worlds.”

This well-publicized passage from Hindu scripture describes the nighttime sky as it would look from inside the star cluster R136 which lies 170 million light-years away in a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). In today’s newly released Hubble Space Telescope pictures, brilliant blue white newborn stars shine like diamonds on black velvet.

The super hot stars are each blazing at tens of thousands of times the brightness of our sun. The view would be nothing less than overwhelmingly opulent for anyone living inside the cluster. The stars would cast shadows on the ground.

But the cluster is too young for life to have evolved. In fact a torrent of ultraviolet radiation would fry any organism. What’s more, within a few million years the most massive stars –- weighing in at over 50 times the sun’s mass — will violently

burn out and pop off in supernova explosions like a stupendous July 4 fireworks

finale. The several hundred thousand surviving sunlike stars will remain gravitationally bound as a globular star cluster.

The R136 cluster is the centerpiece of the firestorm of star birth that is ablaze in the LMC, in a gigantic nebula called 30 Doradus. It is 100 times larger and more energetic than any comparable star-forming region in our Milky Way. Hubble’s recent views of the remote, early universe show that these kinds of hyperactive star birth regions were once the rule rather than the exception. Some very early galaxies were no bigger that the LMC.

So why find a super-starburst region in our own galactic backyard? The Large Magellanic Cloud is plowing through our Milky Way’s halo. Like the waves in front of a boat crossing a lake, the ram pressure from moving through the hot diffuse gas in the halo may compress hydrogen in the LMC and trigger a gusher of star formation. The gravitational tug of the Milky Way and the companion Small Magellanic Cloud may have compressed gas in the LMC as well.

The brilliant stars in R136 are carving deep cavities in the surrounding material. Hurricane-force stellar winds are etching away the enveloping hydrogen gas clouds to sculpt a fantasy landscape of pillars, ridges, and valleys.

The brilliant stars can also help create a successive generation of offspring. When the winds hit dense walls of gas they create shocks, which may be generating a new wave of star birth. When Hubble’s sensitivity switches to near-infrared light, even more newborn stars pop out from behind the nebulosity.

The LMC give us a ringside seat to the fire and fury of raw creation. It’s a brilliant example of the Ying Yang of stellar birth, death and renewal that plays out across the universe.

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