Seeing Protostellar Baby Steps

The B5 complex of gas, in the process of becoming a multiple-star system. Credit: NRAO/AUI/NSF

The B5 complex of gas, in the process of becoming a multiple-star system.

Until well into the 20th century, astronomers didn’t have a clear look into the process of star formation. That’s because the places where stars are born are veiled in heavy clouds of gas and dust. It had to be frustrating, seeing these blobs of star stuff in space and not being able to see into the crèche. But, astronomers are smart people, and as they built advanced capability and techniques into their telescopes and detectors, their chances of being able to lift the veil on starbirth cradles improved to the point where they can look nearly directly onto stellar babies at their earliest stages of formation.  In particular, astronomers use infrared detectors and radio telescopes quite frequently to delve into the mysteries of star formation. The results can be pretty remarkable.

The image at left is not an impressionist painting, but a radio telescope view of a star-forming complex called B5, which lies about 800 light-years away from Earth. The entire cloud and its stars “vibrate” at radio frequencies that can be detected here on Earth, which gives us a chance to see the action that would normally be hidden from our inquiring telescopes.

Artist's conception of the B5 complex as seen today, left, and as it will appear as a multiple-star system in about 40,000 years, right. Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

Artist’s conception of the B5 complex as seen today, left, and as it will appear as a multiple-star system in about 40,000 years, right.
Credit: Bill Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF

The cloud has several hot “cores” where gas has been compressed by gravity so much that it has heated up and has started to glow. One area (the brightest one) in the blobs is a protostar—that is, a stellar core that will soon become hot enough to initiate fusion and become a star. The other hot cores will initiate fusion sometime in the next 40,000 years. That’s the speed of stellar starbirth folks: a few tens of thousands of years from blob of gas and dust to newborn star.

This radio “image” was made using data collected by three radio telescope installations: the Very Large Array in New Mexico, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawai’i, and the Green Bank Telescope in Virginia. At least three of the “stars in forming” will be a multiple-star system in the future (shown in the artist’s concept at the right), and what astronomers learn about them at this stage in their birth will help them understand the very complex actions and processes that go on in interstellar clouds when the process of star formation begins.  This is particularly important because at least half of all star in the galaxy are in multiple-star systems, so understanding how they are born gives astronomers a good handle on a major portion of the star-forming activity in the Milky Way.

Give Your Love Something Unique

This especially photogenic group of interacting galaxies is called Arp 273. The larger of two spiral galaxies, known as UGC 1810, has a disk that is tidally distorted into a rose-like shape by the gravitational tidal pull of the companion galaxy below it, known as UGC 1813. A swath of blue jewels across the top is the combined light from clusters of intensely bright and hot young blue stars. These massive stars glow fiercely in ultraviolet light.

A cluster of newborn stars herald their birth in this interstellar Valentine’s Day commemorative picture obtained with NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. These bright young stars are found in a rosebud-shaped (and rose-colored) nebulosity known as NGC 7129. The star cluster and its associated nebula are located at a distance of 3300 light-years in the constellation Cepheus.

I love the Hubble Space Telescope image (left) of two interacting galaxies that almost look like a beautifully rendered cosmic rose. The Space Telescope Science Institute released it a few years ago to celebrate the telescope’s 21st anniversary in space. This year is Hubble’s 25th anniversary, so I can’t wait to see what they have in mind to celebrate! The Institute has been doing special Hubble Hangouts (I was in one two weeks ago), and if you want to know more about their celebration plans, surf on over to their Website for more details.

Actually, HST’s image wasn’t the first “cosmic rose” released for Valentine’s Day. The folks at the Spitzer Space Telescope got a lovely view (below) of a star cluster and its nebulosity that form the shape of a rosebud, and sent it out in time for Valentine’s Day in 2004.

If you’re looking around for a way to impress your loved one, what could be more cosmic than a personalized note containing a print of one of these two views?

Or, if you’d like to impress with a wonderful memory, how using the occasion to name a crater on the Uwingu Mars maps? My friends there are still taking names for craters on the Mars map that will be going to the Red Planet with the Mars One crew in the not-to-distant future. I’ve got a Mars crater, and I know a lot of other people who do, too—sharing their interest in all things Mars with others!

For more details on the Uwingu Mars crater naming effort (including maps) head over to It doesn’t cost much to get you and your loved ones on the map, and who knows—maybe someday in a decade or so, some Mars explorers will be checking out a rugged crater named after you!