Image: 30 Doradus
.  /  NASA, ESA
This Hubble photo of 30 Doradus was taken Oct. 20-27, 2009. The blue color is light from the hottest, most massive stars; the green from the glow of oxygen; and the red from fluorescing hydrogen.
updated 12/16/2009 12:34:40 PM ET 2009-12-16T17:34:40

The Hubble Space Telescope has captured a festive view of the cosmos in time for the holiday season, with some saying the picture of a star nursery looks like a wreath, maybe a Christmas tree, or even Santa.

The spacecraft observed a group of young stars called R136, which is only a few million years old and inhabits the 30 Doradus Nebula, part of a relatively nearby satellite galaxy of our Milky Way called the Large Magellanic Cloud.

In the photograph, hundreds of brilliant blue stars are surrounded by a ring of warm, glowing orange clouds of dust. The colorful portrait evokes a giant wreath of pine boughs studded with glowing jewels — sort of. And in the hollow center, the dark shadow has the distinct silhouette of a Christmas tree. Really!

Finally, if flipped 90 degrees clockwise, the image even resembles the face and beard of Santa Claus himself. Somewhat.

Well, whether or not this heavenly view actually has anything to do with the season on Earth, it does teach scientists about what's happening up above.

The image was taken in ultraviolet, visible, and red light by Hubble's Wide Field Camera 3, and spans about 100 light-years across. A light-year is the distance light will travel in a year, or about 6 trillion miles (10 trillion km).

Many of the young, hot stars in the picture are extremely large, with a few over 100 times more massive than our sun. The powerful stars are pouring out torrents of ultraviolet light and streams of charged particles called stellar winds, which are carving out deep cavities in the enveloping hydrogen gas cloud.

And a cycle of birth, death and rebirth is occurring. When the winds hit dense walls of gas, they create shocks, which in turn help to trigger a new wave of star birth. Meanwhile the large progenitor stars live out their lives relatively quickly, eventually exploding in supernovas like a string of firecrackers.

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