It’s fitting that one of the first targets for NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope is also one of its last, as the mission draws to an end this week. The Tarantula Nebula was one of the first things that Spitzer studied in the infrared, and it’s returned to gaze at the nebula many times over the years.
The latest image from Spitzer is the result of follow-up observations that occurred in 2019, which created a beautiful, new and high-resolution view. The mission officially ends on Thursday.
“I think we chose the Tarantula Nebula as one of our first targets because we knew it would demonstrate the breadth of Spitzer’s capabilities,” said Michael Werner, Spitzer’s project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “That region has a lot of interesting dust structures and a lot of star formation happening, and those are both areas where infrared observatories can see a lot of things that you can’t see in other wavelengths.”
Spitzer has been NASA’s infrared detective for 16 years. It’s used this capability to study what our eyes can’t see in visible light, especially baby stars and those that are still forming and enrobed in thick gas and dust clouds.
The Tarantula Nebula is in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring dwarf galaxy to our own Milky Way.
Spitzer was the ideal telescope to image the nebula because it’s full of star formation. In particular, the R136 region of the nebula is known as a “starburst” region. Here, massive stars form incredibly close together and the rate of formation is much higher here than anywhere else in the galaxy. To put that in perspective, the region is packed with more than 40 massive stars that each contain 50 times the mass of our sun. And the region is just one light-year across.
The starburst region can be seen as the white gaseous spot near the center of the image.
And up towards the top of the image is 1987A, a supernova spotted in the year it’s named for that has been well-studied. According to NASA, this supernova burned bright for months, showcasing the power of 100 million suns.
The shockwaves from the supernova continue to expand outward and Spitzer has kept an eye on them, noting the silicate-filled dust and the way the shockwave influences its environment as it moves.