Henize 206
20 of 29

Henize 206

June 4, 2008

For stars, life can begin with a death. When a massive, dying star explodes, or "goes supernova," it releases shock waves that can sometimes trigger the birth of a new generation of stars. One such stellar family, a star-forming nebula called Henize 206, has been captured in superb detail in images from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Henize 206 was first catalogued in the early 1950s by Dr. Karl Henize pronounced Hen-eyes), an astronomer who became a NASA astronaut. He flew aboard the Challenger Space Shuttle in 1985. He died in 1993 at age 66 while climbing Mount Everest. The nebula, its stars and the remnants of the blast that created it can be seen in this unique portrait of life and death in the universe.

The luminous nebula Henize 206 is a region of star formation which lies just outside of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, in a small satellite galaxy called the Large Magellanic Cloud. At a distance of about 163,000 light-years from Earth, Henize 206 is home to hundreds and possibly thousands of recently formed stars, ranging in age from two to 10 million years old. These stars formed within a cloud of gas and dust when a nearby massive star exploded near the end of its life. The powerful shockwaves sent out by this supernova explosion compressed regions of the Henize 206 nebula and began the process of star formation.

This NASA Spitzer Space Telescope image shows us a stunning example of the cycle of birth and death which gives rise to stars throughout the universe. If it were not for the death of this massive star millions of years ago, these hundreds of stars never would have formed. Eventually, the largest of these newly formed stars will die in a fiery blast, triggering another cycle of birth and death. This recycling of stellar dust and gas occurs across the universe. Earth's own sun was formed in a similar way.

By imaging Henize 206 in the infrared, Spitzer was able to see through blankets of dust that dominate visible light views. Infrared observations of Henize 206 provide astronomers with a laboratory for understanding the early universe, and stellar birth and death cycles. Unlike large galaxies, the Large Magellanic Cloud has a quirk. The gas permeating it contains roughly 20 to 50 percent of the heavier elements, such as iron, possessed by the Sun and gas clouds in the Milky Way. This low-metallicity state approximates the early universe, allowing astronomers to catch a glimpse of what stellar life was like billions of years ago, when heavy metals were scarce. This Spitzer image is one of the first high-resolution images of a low-metalicity star forming region.

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