Inside the large Magellanic cloud

Posted by Thomas Anderson

The Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, floats in space nearly 200,000 light-years from Earth in a long and slow dance around our galaxy.

Vast clouds of gas within it gradually collapse to form new stars, which in turn, light up the gas clouds in a cornucopia of vibrant colors.

To be sure, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is ablaze with star-forming regions. From the Tarantula Nebula, the brightest stellar nursery in our cosmic neighbourhood, to LHA 120-N 11, part of which is featured in the Hubble image above, the small and irregular galaxy is scattered with glowing nebulae, the most noticeable sign that new stars are being born.

According to the European Space Agency (ESA), the LMC is in an ideal position for astronomers to study the phenomena surrounding star formation. Indeed, it lies in a rather convenient location in the sky, far enough from the plane of the Milky Way that it is neither outshone by too many nearby stars, nor obscured by the dust in the Milky Way’s center.

It is also close enough to study in detail (less than a tenth of the distance of the Andromeda Galaxy, the closest spiral galaxy), and lies almost face-on to Earth, offering astronomers a bird’s eye view.

LHA 120-N 11 (known as N11 for short) is a particularly bright region of the LMC, consisting of several adjacent pockets of gas and star formation. NGC 1769 (in the centre of this image) and NGC 1763 (to the right) are among the brightest parts.

In the center of the image above, a dark finger of dust blots out much of the light. While nebulae are mostly made of hydrogen, the simplest and most plentiful element in the Universe, dust clouds are home to heavier and more complex elements, which go on to form rocky planets like the Earth.

Much finer than household dust (it is actually more like smoke), this interstellar dust consists of material expelled from previous generations of stars as they died.