The Carina Nebula is, astronomically speaking, close to the Earth at only 7,500 light years away. It was formed 3 million years ago and, far from being an inert cloud, it contains over 14,000 stars with this figure in constant flux. Evidence points to the fact that supernova explosions are on the up in the region and new stars are being born all the time. Stars are conceived when gravity gathers up molecules of the nebula gas, packing them tightly together and increasing the temperature. The cloud begins to rotate faster and the core reaches around 10,000
Kelvin (9,700 degrees Celsius/17,500 degrees Fahrenheit) at which point hydrogen molecules have broken down into their component atoms and fusion reactions start: the cloud has become a protostar – 30 times the size of the Sun.
The protostar collapses further until core pressure and temperature is great enough to sustain nuclear fusion. At this stage the star is contained in a dust envelope, a kind of exhaust from the process of the star’s gestation, making the star invisible to the naked eye. In time, pressure exerted by radiation blows the envelope away to reveal the new star.
This recent image from the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) has revealed the Carina Nebula in unprecedented detail. The bright yellow star near the middle is Trumper 14, while the dark patches to the right are the dust envelopes disguising new stars. In the bottom-left is Eta Carinae; at around 100 solar masses, it’s one of the biggest stars in the galaxy that radiates with 5 million times more power than our Sun. It’s near the end of its life and is expected to go supernova in an astronomically short amount of time. In fact, some astronomers believe it could explode any time in the next millennium.