A new photo from the Hubble Space Telescope shows huge pillars of hydrogen gas and dust in the Carina Nebula about 7,500 light-years from Earth.
The pillars are about 1 light-year tall, scientists say. That's nearly 6 trillion miles (9.7 trillion km), more than 60,000 times greater than the distance from the Earth to the sun. And the structures aren't giants by Carina standards: some of the nebula's pillars are three times as big. [Photo of Carina Nebula pillars.]
The columns, and the other odd shapes in the photo, are sculpted by violent stellar winds and radiation from the nebula's massive stars. The dense structures in the image may be nurseries, regions birthing new stars.
The Hubble telescope's new image is a composite of observations taken in 2005 of the region's hydrogen light and new observations of the area's atomic oxygen content.
The Carina Nebula is found in the constellation of the same name (Carina: the Keel). It spans about 100 light-years, making it four times larger than the famous Orion Nebula. Carina is a very bright nebula with intensive star-forming regions.
Carina has a powerful glow, which comes mainly from hot hydrogen basking in the strong radiation of monster baby stars. The immense nebula contains over a dozen stars with at least 50 to 100 times the mass of our sun. Such stars don't live very long ? a few million years at most, compared to the sun's expected lifespan of about 10 billion years.
One of the universe's most impressive stars, Eta Carinae, is found in Carina. Eta Carinae is one of the biggest stars in the Milky Way. At more than 100 times the mass of the sun and about four million times brighter, it's the most luminous star known. Eta Carinae is highly unstable, and prone to violent outbursts, most notably a false supernova event in 1842.
The Hubble Space Telescope launched in April 199 and is still going strong 20 years later. To date, Hubble has observed more than 30,000 celestial targets and amassed more than a half-million pictures in its archive.
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