Just as our Sun has a family of circling planets, our galaxy, the Milky Way, also has a host of objects that are in orbit about its central region. These are small galaxies that have been captured as they wandered too close and, so far, about twenty have been discovered, but one theory predicts there are many, perhaps hundreds, more waiting to be identified. Each is under tremendous stress- overwhelmed by the enormous gravity of our home galaxy and, as a result, their shapes have become disrupted. Over time, their material will be absorbed into our own Island Universe until all that will be left are whispers of dust and gas girding our galaxy like a series of thin wraith-like belts. It's becoming increasingly apparent that this is how galaxies have grown and evolved since the beginning of time- devouring or merging with their neighbors.

Two of the Milky Way's small galactic companions can be seen with unaided vision from a dark site near the equator or anywhere in the southern hemisphere that does not have nighttime light pollution. They are called the Magellanic Clouds because of their misty appearance to the crew on one of Magellan's early voyages of discovery that followed a route through the southern seas to Australia. The larger of the two is located about 150,000 light years from Earth (remember that a light year represents about ten trillion miles or six trillion kilometers) and it contains one of the most beautifully bizarre regions where new stars are forming. Known as the Tarantula Nebula, this stellar nursery is about 1,000 light years in diameter!

The image is encrusted with several points of special interest that are worth mentioning. For example, the bright, star-studded tangle of tendrils, right of center, represents the Tarantula's heart and provides much of the illumination filling the entire scene. The stars in this central area are very young, only one or two million years old, and their overpowering brilliance is indicative of the extreme temperatures they are producing. Below this is a bright, blue-white spherical area that appears to have a chunk taken from its side. You can see it below the pink arching dust and gas tendril that reaches towards the lower middle of the picture from the right. This is NGC 2060 and it's also an area of intense new star formation. The brighter areas of nebulosity extending below this and toward the lower right corner are being blown by intense radiation winds produced both by the Tarantula's heart and this separate star factory. Slightly off the lower right edge of this image is the location of the 1989 supernova, it should also be noted. Toward the bottom left is a bright open cluster of stars known as NGC 2100. Above this is a glowing reddish-blue area of nebulosity, designated N-164, which features an open stellar group that formed from its material and further up is another separate, smaller cluster of hot, blue stars. Finally, the two brilliant yellow stars near the upper left portion of the picture forms a diagonal line that points down toward a curious luminous lobe of bright-pink gas that surrounds a single intensely hot, blue Sun.