A young, glittering collection of stars has been caught in the act of a dazzling celestial fireworks show, in a newly released photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.
The new Hubble space photo, which shows a nebula 20,000 light-years away in the constellation Carina, contains a central cluster of huge, hot stars called NGC 3603. This star cluster is surrounded by clouds of interstellar gas and dust ? the raw materials needed to form new stars.
While the stunning photo may look serene, the environment is actually quite volatile. Ultraviolet radiation and violent stellar winds have blown an enormous cavity in the bubble of gas and dust that envelopes the cluster. Coincidentally, this gives Hubble an unobstructed view of the star cluster's heart.
The Hubble science team released the photo Tuesday, though it was actually taken during several observations between August and December of last year.
Star clusters like NGC 3603 provide crucial information that helps astronomers understand the origin of massive star formation in the early, distant universe.
Most of the stars in this cluster were born around the same time, but they differ in size, mass, temperature and color.
Since the course of a star's life is determined by its mass, star clusters of a given age allow detailed analyses of stellar life cycles, as they contain stars in various stages of their lives.
NGC 3603 also contains some of the most massive stars known. These stars live fast and die young, rapidly burning through their hydrogen fuel and ultimately ending their lives in spectacular supernova explosions.
Astronomers can also use massive star clusters to study distant starbursts that occur when galaxies collide. These cosmic impacts set off a flurry of star formation. The proximity of NGC 3603 makes it an interesting case study for examining such distant and momentous events.
The image of NGC 3603 was captured by Hubble in August 2009 and December 2009 with the telescope's Wide Field Camera 3 in both visible and infrared light.
The Hubble Space Telescope has been observing the universe for 20 years. It was launched in 1990 aboard a NASA space shuttle and been overhauled several times by astronauts on later flights.
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