Hubble telescope captures stunning spiraling star formation in a stellar nursery that’s 200,000 light-years from Earth – giving us a peak into the early universe

  • NASA’s Hubble telescope snapped a beautiful image of spiraling star formation at the center of a stellar nursery 
  • The young stars are located in NGC 346, which is a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way that sits 200,000 light-years from Earth 
  • ‘Stars are the machines that sculpt the universe. We would not have life without stars, and yet we don’t fully understand how they form,’ the study leader said

NASA’s Hubble telescope captured a stunning spiraling star formation in the center of stellar nursery that sits 200,000 light-years away from Earth. 

The young stars can be seen spiraling into the center of a huge cluster of stars known as NGC 346 located in the Small Magellanic Cloud, which is a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way and one of our closest galactic neighbors.

Researchers using the power of Hubble and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope say the outer arm of the spiral could be feeding star formation in a river-like motion of gas and stars.

The stellar nursery’s unique shape has long puzzled astronomers. NGC 346 also boasts the mass of 50,000 suns. To put that into context, the sun is massive enough to hold about 1.3 million Earths inside of it.

It took the combined power of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) to unravel the behavior of this mysterious-looking stellar nesting ground.

NASA’s Hubble telescope captured a stunning spiraling star formation in the center of stellar nursery that sits 200,000 light-years away from Earth

The study looking at the changes of the stars’ positions over a period of 11 years. The stars move at an average velocity of 2,000 miles per hour, so in that length of time they move an astonishing 200 million miles.

Since the cluster is further away, the researchers’ observations were only possible because of Hubble’s higher resolution and sensitivity – plus its history of scanning the cosmos over three decades. 

‘Stars are the machines that sculpt the universe. We would not have life without stars, and yet we don’t fully understand how they form,’ study leader Elena Sabbi of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore said in a statement.

‘We have several models that make predictions, and some of these predictions are contradictory. We want to determine what is regulating the process of star formation, because these are the laws that we need to also understand what we see in the early universe.’ 

The stellar nursery’s unique shape has long puzzled astronomers. NGC 346 also boasts the mass of 50,000 suns. To put that into context, the sun is massive enough to hold about 1.3 million Earths inside of it

NASA’s Hubble telescope was launched aboard the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990 and deployed into orbit the following day. NASA is hopeful that it will continue to provide fruitful data for scientists well into the 2020s

‘A spiral is really the good, natural way to feed star formation from the outside toward the center of the cluster,’ explained Zeidler. ‘It’s the most efficient way that stars and gas fueling more star formation can move towards the center.’ 

A second team used ground-based VLT’s multi-unit spectroscopic explorer (MUSE) instrument to measure radial velocity – which lets us know if an object is approaching or receding from an observer. 

Half of the Hubble data for this study, which is published in The Astrophysical Journal on Sept. 8, is archival.  

Although the initial observations were taken 11 years ago, researchers repeated them again recently. 

‘The Hubble archive is really a gold mine,’ said Sabbi. ‘There are so many interesting star-forming regions that Hubble has observed over the years. Given that Hubble is performing so well, we can actually repeat these observations. This can really advance our understanding of star formation.’ 

Scientists expect that observations from the James Webb Space Telescope – which is larger and more powerful than Hubble and just released its earliest images in July – will be able to resolve some of the lower-mass stars in the cluster. 

NASA’s Hubble telescope was launched aboard the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990 and deployed into orbit the following day. NASA is hopeful that it will continue to provide fruitful data for scientists well into the 2020s. 

Hubble orbits the Earth at an altitude of about 340 miles (547 kilometers). It travels at a speed of about 17,000 miles per hour (27,300 kilometers per hour) and takes about 95 minutes to complete one orbit around Earth. 

Hubble orbits the Earth at an altitude of about 340 miles (547 kilometers). It travels at a speed of about 17,000 miles per hour (27,300 kilometers per hour) and takes about 95 minutes to complete one orbit around Earth

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