The European South Observatory (ESO) has released this magnificent image of the giant stellar nursery surrounding NGC 3603 taken at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) facility in Chile. NGC 3603 is an open cluster of stars situated in the Carina spiral arm of the Milky Way around 20,000 light-years away from our solar system. It was discovered by John Frederick William Herschel in 1834.
The central cluster of stars inside NGC 3603 harbors thousands of stars of all sorts: the majority have masses similar to or less than that of our Sun, but most spectacular are several of the very massive stars that are close to the end of their lives. One star in NGC 3603, namely Sher 25, was found to have thrown off matter in a pattern similar to that found for the supernova 1987A.
NGC 3603 was selected at the best target to investigate collective, massive star formation, in particular the coalescence of high- and low-mass stars in the violent environments of starburst regions. NGC 3603 is the only massive, galactic HII-region in which a central cluster of strongly UV-radiating stars of types “O” and “B” that ionize the nebula can be studied at visual and near-infrared wavelengths. Because of NGC3603’s location relative to Earth, the line-of-sight to the cluster is relatively free of interstellar dust that dims the near-infrared radiation due to matter interaction. Because enough infrared (IR) light reaches the Earth, the Infrared Spectrometer And Array Camera (ISAAC) at VLT can study the densest part of the cluster resolvable only in very sensitive IR instruments.
Previously, an international group of astronomers used the ESO Very Large Telescope to perform unique observations of an interstellar nebula in which stars are currently being born. Thanks to the excellent imaging properties of the first of the four 8.2-m VLT Unit Telescopes, ANTU, they were able to demonstrate, for the first time, the presence of large numbers of small and relatively light, new-born stars in NGC 3603.