Hubble telescope spots magnificent open star cluster 160,000 light-years away

The open star cluster NGC 2002 glitters with stars in this image from the Hubble Space Telescope released on Dec. 5, 2022. (Image credit: NASA, ESA and G. Gilmore (University of Cambridge); Processing: Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America))

Stars in the NGC 2002 cluster glitter in a new Hubble Space Telescope image of deep space. 

The cluster lies about 160,000 light-years away from Earth inside the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a galaxy that orbits our own Milky Way. NASA shared the Hubble Space Telescope image on Dec. 5.

In the center of the cluster sit five red supergiants, or stars that have begun fusing helium because their inner hydrogen fuel has run out. These stars are heavier and have sunk inwards. Lighter stars have drifted to the outer edges of the cluster. 

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NGC 2002 is known specifically as an "open cluster," which means its 1,100 stars are loosely bound to each other and may diffuse away from the cluster over the next few million years. The relative sparseness of the star cluster allows scientists to observe each individual star within.  It’s also a relatively young cluster, aged only 18 million years.

Because of its youth, NGC 2002 provides a natural laboratory in which scientists can observe the earliest stages of a star's life. Understanding the birth, evolution and death of stars is vital to our wider understanding of the universe. Stars are the building blocks of the universe, providing places for planets to form (and for life to evolve!). To better understand our sun, solar system and galaxy, scientists turn to observing stars all over the universe. 

NGC 2002's home, the LMC, is one of the best places for scientists to observe stars at a variety of ages. The LMC is a 7,000-light-year wide dwarf galaxy that orbits the Milky Way about 163,000 light-years away. It's one of the closest galaxies to us, which allows scientists to observe individual stars of every age within the galaxy. 

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JoAnna Wendel contributor

JoAnna Wendel is a freelance science writer living in Portland, Oregon. She mainly covers Earth and planetary science but also loves the ocean, invertebrates, lichen and moss. JoAnna's work has appeared in Eos, Smithsonian Magazine, Knowable Magazine, Popular Science and more. JoAnna is also a science cartoonist and has published comics with Gizmodo, NASA, Science News for Students and more. She graduated from the University of Oregon with a degree in general sciences because she couldn't decide on her favorite area of science. In her spare time, JoAnna likes to hike, read, paint, do crossword puzzles and hang out with her cat, Pancake.