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Previously unseen details of a mysterious, complex structure within
the Carina Nebula (NGC 3372) are revealed by this image of the
"Keyhole Nebula," obtained with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. The
picture is a montage assembled from four different April 1999 telescope
pointings with Hubble's Wide Field Planetary Camera 2, which used six
different color filters.
The picture is dominated by a large, approximately circular feature,
which is part of the Keyhole Nebula, named in the 19th century by
Sir John Herschel. This region, about 8000 light-years from Earth,
is located adjacent to the famous explosive variable star Eta Carinae,
which lies just outside the field of view toward the upper right. The
Carina Nebula also contains several other stars that are among the
hottest and most massive known, each about 10 times as hot, and 100
times as massive, as our Sun.
The circular Keyhole structure contains both bright filaments of hot,
fluorescing gas, and dark silhouetted clouds of cold molecules and
dust, all of which are in rapid, chaotic motion. The high resolution
of the Hubble images reveals the relative three-dimensional locations
of many of these features, as well as showing numerous small dark
globules that may be in the process of collapsing to form new stars.
Two striking large, sharp-edged dust clouds are located near the
bottom center and upper left edges of the image. The former is
immersed within the ring and the latter is just outside the ring.
The pronounced pillars and knobs of the upper left cloud appear
to point toward a luminous, massive star located just outside the
field further toward the upper left, which may be responsible for
illuminating and sculpting them by means of its high-energy
radiation and stellar wind of high-velocity ejected material. These
large dark clouds may eventually evaporate, or if there are
sufficiently dense condensations within them, give birth to small
The Carina Nebula, with an overall diameter of more than 200
light-years, is one of the outstanding features of the
Southern-Hemisphere portion of the Milky Way. The diameter of
the Keyhole ring structure shown here is about 7 light-years.
These data were collected by the Hubble Heritage Team and
Nolan R. Walborn (STScI), Rodolfo H. Barba' (La Plata Observatory,
Argentina), and Adeline Caulet (France).
February 3, 2000
Image Credit: NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI)