Star-forming region nebula NGC 346

Star-forming region in nebula NGC 346

NGC 346 is a star-forming region about 200 light-years across, found among the clusters and nebulae of the Small Magellanic Cloud, pictured here by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way, visible to the naked eye in the southern constellation Tucana, and located 210 000 light-years away.

Here, Hubble astronomers have uncovered, for the first time, a population of infant stars. Embedded in the nebula NGC 346, these infant stars are still forming from gravitationally collapsing gas clouds. They have not yet ignited their hydrogen fuel to sustain nuclear fusion. The smallest of these infant stars is only half the mass of our Sun.

Although star birth is common within the disk of our galaxy, this smaller companion galaxy is more primeval in that it lacks a large percentage of the heavier elements that are forged in successive generations of stars through nuclear fusion.

Dwarf galaxies like the SMC are considered primitive building blocks of larger galaxies. Most of these types of galaxies existed far away, when the Universe was much younger. The SMC offers a unique nearby laboratory for understanding how stars arose in the early Universe. Nestled among other starburst regions within the small galaxy, nebula NGC 346 alone contains more than 2500 infant stars.

The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international co-operation between ESA and NASA.

Last update: 26 January 2005

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