The nebula owes its shape to the intense light and winds coming from the young, massive stars which lift the curtains of gas and clouds revealing a multitude of glowing suns. The central cluster of stars inside NGC 3603 harbors thousands of stars of all sorts (eso9946): 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.
Several blue supergiant stars crowd into a volume of less than a cubic light-year, along with three so-called Wolf-Rayet stars — extremely bright and massive stars that are ejecting vast amounts of material before finishing off in glorious explosions known as supernovae. Using
another recent set of observations performed with the SINFONI instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), astronomers have confirmed that one of these stars is about 120 times more massive than our Sun, standing out as the most massive star known so far in the Milky Way.
Photo credit: ESO
The clouds of NGC 3603 provide us with a family picture of stars in different stages of their life, with gaseous structures that are still growing into stars, newborn stars, adult stars and stars nearing the end of their life. All these stars have roughly the same age, a million years, a blink of an eye compared to our five billion year-old Sun and Solar System. The fact that some of the stars have just started their lives while others are already dying is due to their extraordinary range of masses: high-mass stars, being very bright and hot, burn through their existence much faster than their less massive, fainter and cooler counterparts.
The newly released image, obtained with the FORS instrument attached to one of the four 8.2-m VLT Unit Telescopes at Cerro Paranal, Chile, is a three-color combination of exposures acquired through visible and near-infrared (V, R, I) filters. This image portrays a wider field around the stellar cluster and reveals the rich texture of the surrounding clouds of gas and dust. The field of view is 7 arcminutes wide.