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NGC 602: Taken Under the "Wing" of the Small Magellanic Cloud

  • The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is one of the closest galaxies to the Milky Way.

  • In this composite image the Chandra data is shown in purple, optical data from Hubble is shown in red, green and blue and infrared data from Spitzer is shown in red.

  • Chandra observations of the SMC have resulted in the first detection of X-ray emission from young stars with masses similar to our Sun outside our Milky Way galaxy.

The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is one of the Milky Way's closest galactic neighbors. Even though it is a small, or so-called dwarf galaxy, the SMC is so bright that it is visible to the unaided eye from the Southern Hemisphere and near the equator. Many navigators, including Ferdinand Magellan who lends his name to the SMC, used it to help find their way across the oceans.

Modern astronomers are also interested in studying the SMC (and its cousin, the Large Magellanic Cloud), but for very different reasons. Because the SMC is so close and bright, it offers an opportunity to study phenomena that are difficult to examine in more distant galaxies.

New Chandra data of the SMC have provided one such discovery: the first detection of X-ray emission from young stars with masses similar to our Sun outside our Milky Way galaxy. The new Chandra observations of these low-mass stars were made of the region known as the "Wing" of the SMC. In this composite image of the Wing the Chandra data is shown in purple, optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope is shown in red, green and blue and infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope is shown in red.

Astronomers call all elements heavier than hydrogen and helium - that is, with more than two protons in the atom's nucleus - "metals." The Wing is a region known to have fewer metals compared to most areas within the Milky Way. There are also relatively lower amounts of gas, dust, and stars in the Wing compared to the Milky Way.

Taken together, these properties make the Wing an excellent location to study the life cycle of stars and the gas lying in between them. Not only are these conditions typical for dwarf irregular galaxies like the SMC, they also mimic ones that would have existed in the early Universe.

Most star formation near the tip of the Wing is occurring in a small region known as NGC 602, which contains a collection of at least three star clusters. One of them, NGC 602a, is similar in age, mass, and size to the famous Orion Nebula Cluster. Researchers have studied NGC 602a to see if young stars - that is, those only a few million years old - have different properties when they have low levels of metals, like the ones found in NGC 602a.

Using Chandra, astronomers discovered extended X-ray emission, from the two most densely populated regions in NGC 602a. The extended X-ray cloud likely comes from the population of young, low-mass stars in the cluster, which have previously been picked out by infrared and optical surveys, using Spitzer and Hubble respectively. This emission is not likely to be hot gas blown away by massive stars, because the low metal content of stars in NGC 602a implies that these stars should have weak winds. The failure to detect X-ray emission from the most massive star in NGC 602a supports this conclusion, because X-ray emission is an indicator of the strength of winds from massive stars. No individual low-mass stars are detected, but the overlapping emission from several thousand stars is bright enough to be observed.

The Chandra results imply that the young, metal-poor stars in NGC 602a produce X-rays in a manner similar to stars with much higher metal content found in the Orion cluster in our galaxy. The authors speculate that if the X-ray properties of young stars are similar in different environments, then other related properties -- including the formation and evolution of disks where planets form -- are also likely to be similar.

X-ray emission traces the magnetic activity of young stars and is related to how efficiently their magnetic dynamo operates. Magnetic dynamos generate magnetic fields in stars through a process involving the star's speed of rotation, and convection, the rising and falling of hot gas in the star's interior.

The combined X-ray, optical and infrared data also revealed, for the first time outside our Galaxy, objects representative of an even younger stage of evolution of a star. These so-called “young stellar objects” have ages of a few thousand years and are still embedded in the pillar of dust and gas from which stars form, as in the famous "Pillars of Creation" of the Eagle Nebula. A labeled version shows the location of these young stellar objects (roll your mouse over the image above).

A paper describing these results was published online and in the March 1, 2013 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. The first author is Lidia Oskinova from the University of Potsdam in Germany and the co-authors are Wei Sun from Nanjing University, China; Chris Evans from the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, UK; Vincent Hénault-Brunet from University of Edinburgh, UK; You-Hua Chu from the University of Illinois, Urbana, IL; John Gallagher III from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI; Martin Guerrero from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, Spain; Robert Gruendl from the University of Illinois, Urbana, IL; Manuel Güdel from the University of Vienna, Austria; Sergey Silich from the Instituto Nacional de Astrofísica Optica y Electrónica, Puebla, Mexico; Yang Chen from Nanjing University, China; Yael Nazé from Université de Liège, Liège, Belgium; Rainer Hainich from the University of Potsdam, Germany, and Jorge Reyes-Iturbide from the Universidade Estadual de Santa Cruz, Ilhéus, Brazil.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory controls Chandra's science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.


Visitor Comments (15)

This is my favorite image of all Unlike most other photos of celestial objects, this captures all the subjects one sees when they turn their eyes skyward - nebulae, galaxies, and stars. And the most striking aspect of this photo is that one can sense 3-D - it is not the flat surface one normally experiences in looking at other photos.

Posted by Russell Osterlund on Friday, 03.24.17 @ 12:38pm

Hello and thank you for sharing the beautiful astronomy multimedia galleries.

Is it possible to capture the pictures in optical, UV and X-rays range for taking photo by the space telescopes with making a little balance in the electromagnetic wavelengths intensities and or shrink them to become visible? so we have options to change the view to X-Ray view, optical view and both with first photography.

Posted by Amir on Saturday, 01.4.14 @ 02:35am

Absolutely breathtaking.
Thank you for this. Has to be one of my favorite.

Posted by Erich Rast on Monday, 09.30.13 @ 03:37am

It's amazing how small we are in the universe, but yet how big we are to be able to reach out and study such happenings. Cant's stop looking at images like this.

Posted by J. Corbin on Sunday, 08.18.13 @ 12:18pm

Phenomenal stuff. The fast facts and spectrum/spectral distance estimate visuals always helps with clarity and understanding. Thanks for adding those.

Posted by MSosa on Saturday, 05.11.13 @ 11:17am

Worth more time than I have to study right now, but....WOW!!!

Posted by David Weinflash on Wednesday, 04.24.13 @ 14:35pm

All the right stuff, thanks for sharing...

Posted by Kristy on Friday, 04.19.13 @ 16:45pm

Again, you have surpassed all on your
work at Harvard, and in particular, the most spectacular images on the Web.

Bill Kraham

Posted by Bill Kraham on Friday, 04.19.13 @ 13:30pm

Incredible pictures with such clarity. Great job NASA. Happy to support this kind of incredible work.

Posted by Stephen Ulmer on Friday, 04.19.13 @ 11:29am

Keep them coming and stilll interested.

Posted by rick moll on Friday, 04.19.13 @ 01:55am

Rarely do my tax dollars go for something worthwhile and enduring, this is one of those rare occasion. Thank you, Jim

Posted by Jim Whaley on Tuesday, 04.9.13 @ 09:53am

Wow! Yet another great one!

Posted by Barry Thorley on Friday, 04.5.13 @ 01:36am

Now I'm just an ordinary guy about to start college to become an astronomer and this is simply amazing but here's an interesting thought what if we as a people brought one of these young stellar objects into our galaxy since they are so close and do the math and what not place it by mars supply it with the materials to support existing life and cultivate the planet I'm sure you all have thought of this or heard an idea like it I'm only 19 so I'm sure you have just an idea from America's youth thank you and have a wonderful time experiencing the universe
Dustian Begnaud

Posted by Dustian Begnaud on Thursday, 04.4.13 @ 23:46pm

You are doing a great job

Posted by K. Purohit on Thursday, 04.4.13 @ 17:02pm

Well, something is happening there for sure. Thank you to all of you because of these wonderful images.

Posted by Mr. Sinisa Joseph Luciano Jordan Munitic on Wednesday, 04.3.13 @ 18:53pm

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