A new panorama of a cosmic nebula offers an up-close glimpse of baby stars being born.
The nebula, dubbed NGC 3603, is called a starburst region because stars are coming into being in feverish bursts of activity. It lies about 22,000 light-years away from the sun, making it the closest region of the kind known in our galaxy. This near view offers astronomers a relatively local test bed for studying intense star formation processes that are usually hard to observe in detail because of their great distance from us.
The new view was captured by the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in the Atacama desert of Chile. The cosmic panorama displays the rich texture of the surrounding clouds of gas and dust in the area, with many of the hot newborn stars dotting the scene with blue light.
This nebula is also home to the most massive star ever to be "weighed" so far. This behemoth, part of a binary system called A1, is estimated to be roughly 116 times the mass of the sun.
NGC 3603 owes its shape to the intense light and winds coming from the young, massive stars that push out against the curtains of gas and clouds. The central cluster of stars inside the nebula harbors thousands of stars of all sorts: the majority have masses similar to or less than that of our sun, but most spectacular are several of the very massive stars that are close to the end of their lives.
Several blue supergiant stars crowd into a volume of less than a cubic light-year, along with three so-called Wolf-Rayet stars — extremely bright and massive stars that are ejecting vast amounts of material before finishing off in glorious explosions known as supernovae.