NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has taken a 'family portrait' of young, ultra-bright stars nested in their embryonic cloud of glowing gases. The celestial maternity ward, called N81, is located 200,000 light- years away in the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), a small irregular satellite galaxy of our Milky Way. These are probably the youngest massive stars ever seen in the SMC. The nebula offers a unique opportunity for a close-up glimpse at the 'firestorm' accompanying the birth of extremely massive stars, each blazing with the brilliance of 300,000 of our suns. Such galactic fireworks were much more common billions of years ago in the early universe, when most star formation took place.

Because the stars of the SMC are deficient in heavier elements, they too evolve much like the universe's earliest stars, which were made almost exclusively of primordial elements hydrogen and helium that were cooked up in the big bang. In fact, the SMC is a unique laboratory for studying star formation in the early universe since it is the closest and best seen galaxy containing so-called 'metal-poor' first and second generation type stars. Hubble's exquisite resolution allows astronomers to pinpoint 50 separate stars tightly packed in the nebula's core within a 10 light-year diameter - slightly more than twice the distance between earth and the nearest star to our sun. The closest pair of stars is only 1/3 of a light-year apart.

Before the Hubble observations, N81 was simply dubbed 'The Blob' because its features were indistinguishable in ground-based telescopes.

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