Unlocking the Jewel Box

By Phil Plait | October 29, 2009 10:46 am

Need some pretty for today? Then you should feast your eyes on this exquisite picture of the cluster of stars known as the Jewel Box:

hst_jewelbox

[Click to encaret].

Gee, I can’t imagine why’d they name it the Jewel Box! In fact, this is a large cluster of stars located in the southern constellation of Crux, also called the Southern Cross. It’s bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye, in fact (though when I was in the Galapagos last year, Crux didn’t get high enough off the horizon to see the cluster very well).

This image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows the multicolored stars dwelling in the cluster. But not for long, I’ll add. Those bluish stars are O and B-type supergiants, massive stars that scream through their nuclear fuel thousands of times faster than the Sun, meaning their lives are far shorter. The red beacon there at the upper right is a red supergiant, a star right on the edge of disaster (literally, since the word means "bad or ill star"). It won’t be long, maybe a few million more years, when all the bright stars in the Jewel Box will go supernova, detonating in titanic explosions each of which, from the Earth, will outshine Venus!

vlt_jewelboxThe image is one of three from three different telescopes, taken to examine the core of the cluster (with Hubble) as well as the outer regions. The picture on the left is from the Very Large Telescope in Chile, and shows a larger area around the cluster (the bright red star is the same as in the Hubble picture). Incredibly, due to the huge telescope’s light-gathering abilities, this picture is actually only a 5.2 second exposure! It’s composed of three images: one in blue (2.6 seconds), one in yellow (1.3 s) and one in red (1.3 s). When you use a telescope with a mirror 8 frakkin’ meters across, bright stars don’t take long to show up.

Astronomers aren’t sure if the Sun was born in a cluster like the Jewel Box, or if it was formed in a smaller cloud by itself; both types of birth occur in the galaxy. I know it’s not scientific, but a part of me rather hopes that once upon a time, a few billion years ago, the Sun did in fact see its first light inside such a cluster. Imagine the sky, festooned with stars so bright they outshine the Moon, easily luminous enough to read by, and each glowing blue, red, yellow… that would have been a fantastic sight.

Some people think that science takes away the romance and wonder of the Universe, but I don’t think not knowing is romantic, especially when knowing gives us such lovely vistas to explore.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (39)

  1. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    Phil, you forgot this image…

    Image of NGC 4755
    Image of the well-known NGC 4755

    (Click on the image to “embiggen”. Credit: ESO.)

  2. Escuerd

    The idea of living on a planet in a star cluster brings Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall” to mind. Very good story, by the way.

  3. Dave

    Richard Feynman would’ve agreed with your last paragraph:

    Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars ~ mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere.” I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination ~ stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern ~ of which I am a part ~ perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?
    - Richard Feynman, The Feynman Lections on Physics, Vol. 1

  4. Sean

    “Not knowing” is is the wonderful starting point for the adventure we call science. The tattoo on the right side of my head is a solar cross, which seems to be an early depiction (cave painting) of an astronomical event. It reminds me that I must, in spite of all we do know, maintain my sense of mystery and awe. And, Bad, there’s nothing wrong with a little romantical what iffing, as long as we’re ready to put it aside if and when reality serves up a different version of events.

  5. Charlie Young

    I remember when Palomar used to be “the Big One” at 200 inches (~5.1 meters)! 8 meters is a lot of light collecting power. The engineering for a piece of glass that size is amazing. Is it even glass as we know it or some highly engineered polymer?

  6. TGAP Dad

    Just curious here – what is the origin of the star effect on the (actual) stars in this image? Is that a result of something in the Hubble camera, added in the post-processing, or what? With a background in photography, I would have done this in a picture I had taken with a crosshatch star filter. I can’t believe NASA/ESA would have done this, as it adds nothing to the science (does it?)

  7. mike burkhart

    I’ve only seen the southern cross once I think it called the jewel box because of stars colors look like jewels I gess (lets face it some things in the universe are misnamed ) I have one question if the sun formed in a star cluster were are the other stars in the cluster? the nearest one to us is 4 light years away unless the distances between stars in clusters is grater than we think ? oh by the way ngc 3324 looks like the jewel boxs twin

  8. Amy F.

    TGAP Dad: the diffraction spikes are due to the support struts of the secondary mirror of the telescope. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diffraction_spike

  9. KurtMac

    @TGAP Dad: Usually, when you see an image of bright stars and they have a big X or cross of light spiking through them, it is due to light diffraction off the telescope’s spider vanes which hold the secondary mirror in place. I found a good explanation here: http://www.larrydsmith.com/astro/spider.html

    The effect can be quite dramatic, and can be achieved with Photoshop filters if it is something you artistically desire in an image. Die-hard refractor telescope users, however, would probably classify diffraction spikes as a “flaw” of reflector designs.

  10. IVAN3MAN AT LARGE

    TGAP Dad:

    Just curious here – what is the origin of the star effect on the (actual) stars in this image?

    They are called "diffraction spikes" and they are an optical aberration caused by light diffracting around the support vanes of the secondary mirror in reflecting telescopes. Refracting telescopes and their photographic images do not have the same problem.

    See: Diffraction spikes explained by Astronomy Picture of the Day.

  11. !AstralProjectile

    OTP (Sorry) but I found Brent Spiner’s comment rather “curious”.

    (Edited to add: Whats up with the filter, BA? it thumbed me straight through!)

  12. 7. mike burkhart Says:
    October 29th, 2009 at 11:50 am

    I have one question if the sun formed in a star cluster were are the other stars in the cluster? the nearest one to us is 4 light years away unless the distances between stars in clusters is grater than we think ?
    __________

    I was wondering the same thing. The Centauri system is close to the right age range – about 4.8 billion years old. However, Sirius, Bernard’s Star and Wolf 359 are all toddlers at 100-350 million yers old, Lalande 21185 could be as much as 10 billion years old, and Ross 154 is somewhere under 1 billion. So if it formed in a cluster, the sun – or the other stars – would have to have moved really far really quickly. Or can there be a large variation of ages in a cluster?

  13. bigjohn756

    Many, if not most, of the people I know aren’t the least bit interested in this stuff. They say that they’re not interested in anything that doesn’t affect their daily life. Show them a picture like this and they will glance at it and say it’s pretty. Then they’ll say so what. I am interested in all manner of things which are not directly related to my daily life, so, I cannot comprehend that attitude.

  14. Dennis

    Hee hee, click to encaret, good one!

  15. TGAP Dad

    I definitely heart APOD, and even have their widget on my dashboard, but I somehow never saw the explanation for diffraction spikes. (Maybe I should have used a reflecting telescope on my trusty old Olympus OM-1n?) A world of thanks from your unworthy admirer…

  16. David

    Here is a link to Richard Feynman expressing the same concept with respect to beauty.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srSbAazoOr8

  17. AnAngryFetus

    Did anyone else notice the picture that kinda looks like Mickey Mouse?

  18. Woof

    7. mike burkhart Says:
    October 29th, 2009 at 11:50 am

    I have one question if the sun formed in a star cluster were are the other stars in the cluster? the nearest one to us is 4 light years away unless the distances between stars in clusters is grater than we think ?

    All is ‘splained in the November 2009 Scientific American:
    http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=the-long-lost-siblings-of-the-sun

  19. vaccinefree

    What, you’re back to astronomy now? You were so busy shoving the flu vaccine down people’s throats for a couple of months I thought you had a new job as a big pharma schill. Well, I think I’ll enjoy my astronomy elsewhere – I don’t trust you anymore.

  20. Astrofiend

    12. toasterhead Says:
    October 29th, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    7. mike burkhart Says:
    October 29th, 2009 at 11:50 am

    “I have one question if the sun formed in a star cluster were are the other stars in the cluster? the nearest one to us is 4 light years away unless the distances between stars in clusters is grater than we think ? ”

    Consider that the Sun is approximately 4.6 Billion years old. It orbits the centre of our galaxy every 200 million years or so. It has been around the block quite some few times. Also, stars that form together in open clusters are generally all about the same age for reasons I won’t go into.

    Now, open clusters like the one our Sun may have been born in are weakly gravitationally bound – they can’t ‘hold on to each other’ for a very long time – maybe a lap or so of the galaxy tops. As such, any stars formed with the Sun will have drifted apart LONG ago – 4.6 billion years is not a short time for this to happen in – it is a veritable eternity.

    Does this mean that they are lost forever? Not necessarily. All of the stars formed in an open cluster generally form with the same composition – the same amounts of ‘metals’ (elements heavier than H and He in astronomical parlance). These have the potential to act as a unique identifier or ‘fingerprint’ of the stars from a given cluster. In theory then, it may be possible to, knowing the Sun’s composition in detail, find other stars born with it based on their age and spectroscopic signatures. These stars, although scattered throughout the galaxy, should roughly maintain some elements of their orbit, so we can narrow down where to search somewhat. There are astronomers working on this very problem as we speak!

  21. Hey, vaccinefree (#21): Gee, I’m utterly destroyed that an antivaxxer doesn’t want to read my site anymore. I will wish upon you the same exit line I do when all drama queens leave in a huff: don’t let any electrons hit you in the butt on the way out.

  22. Markus

    vaccinefree (#21) made the same comment on Digg on this article http://digg.com/space/My_god_it_s_full_of_stars_7?t=29087297#c29087297 Though his sn there is *nirvanix*.

  23. Spectroscope

    @12. toasterhead Says:

    I was wondering the same thing. The Centauri system is close to the right age range – about 4.8 billion years old. However, Sirius, Bernard’s Star and Wolf 359 are all toddlers at 100-350 million years old,

    I’d like to know where you got those figures from because I’m not sure all are right.

    Sirius is definitely a much younger star because being an A1 type Sirian dwarf it is much more massive and thus shorter-lived.* The main-sequence lifespan of A type stars ranges form 300 million for A0 stars to 1.8 billion for A9 stars so Sirius at A1 could be at most a but over 300 million – while our Sun is five billion years old. In fact Sirius is a way into its lifespan given it is accompanied by “the Pup” a white dwarf star.

    Now to have evolved into a white dwarf, Sirius B the Pup must have began life as a star much more massive and shorter-lived than the “Dogstar” – but also not quite massive enough to go supernova and thus end life as a neutron star or black hole. So we think Sirius B was originally probably a B3 star with 5 solar masses shining super bright for 101 to 126 million years before becoming the white dwarf it is today.

    (See Kaler’s estimate see http://www.astro.uiuc.edu/~kaler/sow/sirius.html)

    This means Sirius must indeed be between 130 and 350 million years old. Incidentally, Sirius is sometimes considered to be a possible member of another dispersed cluster – the Ursa Major moving group which includes most of the stars in the eponymous “Big Dipper” – although whether Sirius actually is a member of this group is uncertain & it may well not be.

    However, Barnard’s Star and Wolf 359 are, I would think, much older. These stars are dim red dwrafs which began life as more active flare stars such as UV Ceti aka Luyten’s Flare Star & EV Lacertae (the “red dwraf that roared” in a past BA blog thread. See : http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2008/05/19/the-red-dwarf-that-roared/)

    So flaring is an indication of youth in red dwarfs (& stars generally I think) and “stellar toddlers” at the relatively new born ages of 100- 350 million years old – a tiny fraction of the trillion year lifespan of type M red dwrafs – would be expected to show plenty of flare activity and be considered variable flare stars. Yet neither Barnard’s Star nor Wolf 359 show much if any flare activity – just one flare for Barnard’s star that I know of. This stability and their orbits which suggest they are part of the galaxy’s thick disk or even the galactic halo indicates that they may well be much older than our Sun – many billions of years.

    Also comparing Proxima Centauri’s flare activity suggests it is younger than them and if Proxima was born at the same time as the other other components of Alpha Centauri then it would be slightly older than our Sun. Thus Barnard’s Star and Wolf 359 would in my estimation be at least seven or eight billion years old if not much older still.

    So, please toasterhead, those age estimates have me quite puzzled – could you kindly clear up my confusion here and tell me where you got the figures from & check again that they’re accurate? Because to me they just don’t add up – at least not for the two red dwrafs ?

    Lalande 21185 could be as much as 10 billion years old, and Ross 154 is somewhere under 1 billion. So if it formed in a cluster, the sun – or the other stars – would have to have moved really far really quickly. Or can there be a large variation of ages in a cluster?

    I would think there may be some variation based on the rate of star formation – some stars forming before others as, for example a wave of star formation moves across a star forming nebula. But I’d also expect all the stars in the cluster to be roughly the same age or within a particular small range of ages.

    Oh & I’d also dispute the figure for Ross 154 which once again, I would have thought to be a much more ancient star.

    Thanks Bad Astronomer for sharing this spectacular photo and for your always informative & enlightening write up of it! Thanks too IVAN3MAN AT LARGE for your speedy delivery of another superb image! Very much appreciated. :-)

    As for #21 Vaccinefree – so you’re getting your asronomy elsewhere but you’re coming here to post about it & say not reading us? What a pratt you are. :roll:

    *****

    * All stars of the early spectral types O, B, A & F in fact “*must* be younger than our Sun as are all hypergiant, supergiant & bright giant stars. (Ie. luminosity classes 0, Ia, & II.)

  24. Hey, Dr. BA, I take offense at that “drama queen” crack.

    Trust a real drama queen, vaccinefree is a wannabe drama princess!

  25. Jess Tauber

    Jewel Box- feh…. Gimme Westerlund 1

  26. Naomi

    Oh, blast. For once I’m in the right hemisphere, and I still can’t see it! Stupid light pollution – you can barely see Epsilon Cru any more. (In fact, in the middle of the city, you can’t see Delta, either!)

  27. Andrew

    Absolutely gorgeous. Cheerio vaccinefree.

  28. bassmanpete

    a but over 300 million

    Spectroscope, do I detect a New Zealand accent there? :)

    vaccinefree, what you have to realise is that, in many cases, the people/companies promoting anti-vax are trying to do exactly the same as the pharmaceutical companies – sell their products. The big difference (besides the fact that most of the products don’t work!) is that their R & D costs are much smaller.

  29. toasterhead

    So, please toasterhead, those age estimates have me quite puzzled – could you kindly clear up my confusion here and tell me where you got the figures from & check again that they’re accurate? Because to me they just don’t add up – at least not for the two red dwrafs ?

    I got the information from the Wikipedia pages for all the local stars. It’s entirely possible that Wiki is wrong and/or I misread the numbers – both of which are easily corrected. But if Barnard’s Star and Wolf 359 are indeed geriatric instead of infants, it still backs up my main point which is that our stellar neighbors are mostly not close to the age of Sol and thus wouldn’t have been part of a cluster with it. What I was really trying to understand is whether or not a cluster’s children would disperse over 4.6 billion years, which Woof and Astrofiend answered.

    Though now I’m curious about your answer for Sirius – are we certain that A and B formed at the same time? If stars are as mobile as some of the posters here are saying, couldn’t the pup be a captured dwarf that formed in a different place and time? Or at least a Sirius Cybernetics Corporation product gone horribly wrong?

  30. Abbey

    I am always and forever awed by looking up at night and seeing the wonderous things floating out there with us. But sometimes on a really bad day (I am disabled with chronic pain that means a life of morphine until someone comes up with a bionic spine. Anyone have any news on that front, by chance?), I forget the awe and the joy to be found within it.

    Thank you for the picture of the pretty and for reminding me to look up.

  31. 23. Astrofiend Says:

    In theory then, it may be possible to, knowing the Sun’s composition in detail, find other stars born with it based on their age and spectroscopic signatures. These stars, although scattered throughout the galaxy, should roughly maintain some elements of their orbit, so we can narrow down where to search somewhat. There are astronomers working on this very problem as we speak!
    __________

    Perhaps I’m jumping a few steps ahead, but wouldn’t these also be good candidates for habitable planets? If they formed around the same time as the Sun and have roughly the same composition, it would seem to follow that they’d have the same proportions of rocky planets and gas giants that we have, plus more than enough time for life to form.

  32. Stunning pics. Simply stunning.

  33. David

    Does anyone have a definitive say on what the relative views of the two article pix are? Are they more or less the same view, with the wider angle shot being rotated a little counter-clockwise?

  34. PAX4721

    I come from what you humans call the Jewel Box. I am honored that you find our region of space so beautiful. It is in fact much like what you humans would call a recycling factory, where we build something akin to what you humans call cocoons, and harvest celestial energy from supernovas, with the aid of controlled black holes, to create a nexus of energy capable of creating a new star system. I would explain this in more depth, but I’m afraid that your science hasn’t yet developed enough to give a clear explanation humans might understand. This isn’t to say that you cannot understand, just that you are not ready yet. And considering how much background scientific advancements are required to comprehend the mathematics, it would take much more time than the course of your natural lives to explain the fundamentals and governing dynamics before even getting into the formulas and equipment involved unfortunately. All in due time.

    We are in fact building a new star as we speak and recreating it much as we created your own lovely Sun 4,575,429,135 years ago based on the success of your civilizations growth and existence beneath it’s light. In approximately 12,322,490,841 (give or take three million years) it should be completed, and well enough developed to hopefully begin to nurture the existence of some neighbors not unlike yourselves.

    Unfortunately, by our estimations, your Sun will only be able to support your form of lifeforms for another 4,483,451,937 years. And our company policy is not to interfere with the continued existence of a species unless it is capable of helping itself relocate to another one of the many, many habitable stars we have designed. Perhaps in that time you will have developed enough technologically to survive, and we would encourage you to stop by and bring them some ‘solar warming gifts’ as seems to be an interesting tradition you perform to your own kind when they’ve moved into their new home. However we will have to intervene unfortunately if you cannot sort out the differences between your own kind in that time. We wouldn’t be able to accept a solar sibling rivalry after all, since this could damage our creation. And that would be unacceptable since your civilization is still a long way from having the ability to repay us for the damages.

    Live long and prosper humans.

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