Hubble sees spectacular star birth and death

By Phil Plait | July 7, 2010 7:20 am

Hubble is the gift that keeps on giving. Check this jaw-dropping stunner:

hst_ngc3603

Holy wow! Click to embiggen, or go here to get a ginormous image.

This is an image of NGC 3603, a vast cloud of gas and dust that is cranking out stars like no one’s business. It’s one of the busiest stellar nurseries in our entire galaxy. That cluster of stars in the center has thousands of newly-born stars in it, including one named NGC 3603A. This bruiser is the most massive star ever to have its mass directly measured: it is a whopping 116 times heftier than the Sun. That’s about as massive as a star can get without tearing itself apart!

hst_sher25_july2010But look to the upper right; see that bright star centered in some blue-ish gas? I’ve zoomed in on it here. That star is Sher 25, a massive B1a supergiant that is a ticking time bomb. Sometime in the next 20,000 years — and that’s a guarantee — it’ll blow, creating a supernova that will rival Venus for brightness! I know this because the gas around it is a classic hourglass-shaped bipolar nebula, created as the star itself expels dense winds of its own material. We’ve seen this before: around the supernova SN 1987a.

hubble_sn87a_20thHere’s a shot from Hubble of 87a (click to embiggen this, too). You can see the ring around the star, and the faint rings around it top and bottom. It’s still not clear exactly how they formed, but it’s clear they’re from when the star was younger. The rings around 87a can be dated to be about 20,000 years old — that means the star made the rings and blew up 20,000 years later. Sher 25 already has rings, and it’s a bit hotter and more massive than the star that blew up in 1987… so it has no more than 20,000 years, and probably less, before it detonates as a tremendous supernova. I’ll note it’s 20,000 light years away, so it’s no danger to Earth.

NGC 3603 is one of my favorite objects in the whole sky. I studied SN87a for my PhD, and a few years back I was a referee on a paper about Sher 25 — the only paper I ever professionally refereed. All for the best, I’m thinking.

Still, the nebulosity, the stars, Sher 25 — altogether, this is an amazing object, and a magnificent picture. We may even have an early entry for my annual Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2010.

Oh — this image was taken by my old grad advisor, Bob O’Connell. So now I think this object and I have come — pardon the expression — full circle.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, R. O’Connell (University of Virginia), F. Paresce (National Institute for Astrophysics, Bologna, Italy), E. Young (Universities Space Research Association/Ames Research Center), the WFC3 Science Oversight Committee, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)


Related posts:

- Does this cluster make my mass look fat?
- Another Hubble stunner… and it’s a repeat. Kinda.
- Astronomers find the most massive star ever discovered
- 20 years ago today
- What is the next star that will explode? (a YouTube video I made)

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (44)

  1. I really must get to wor….ooooo! Purty pitcher!

  2. Jon Hanford

    NGC 3603, Oh yeah! Thanks for highlighting that future supernova Sher 25. Interesting to note that the HII ring surrounding the star was only discovered in 1997. There is a fascinating paper by Brandner et. al.: “The Hourglass Nebulae of Sher 25 and SN 1987 A: Two of a Kind?” that looks into the possible kinship between Sher 25 and SN 1987A. You can read it here: http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/astro-ph/pdf/9709/9709138v1.pdf

    BTW, is this the paper you ref’d Phil?

  3. Hope you cover this further: Quacks sue Quackwatch

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/07/attempted_intimidation_by_a_qu.php?utm_source=sbhomepage&utm_medium=link&utm_content=channellink

    I suggest a campaign to post the very articles that Doctor’s Data does not want us to read. If I recall there was an effort like this when a similar attempt was made to silence Simon Singh.

  4. OK, I admit it’s getting a little out of hand over there. I’m kind of busy this morning but I’ll warp over this afternoon and tell them to tone it down a bit and stop disturbing their neighbors.

    Sorry guys. You know how kids are.

  5. Cindy

    Any radial velocities on the rings around Sher 25 to get a date on them and thus a rough estimate on when Sher 25 will supernova?

    Pretty picture. Just got a new laptop and put Hubble’s 20th anniversary picture on it as the new background. Hmm, might have to change it.

  6. Chris

    So if it’s 20,000 lt yrs away and we’ll see it supernova in 20,000 years, doesn’t that mean it’s going to blow up about now, if it already hasn’t?

  7. owlbear1

    Hey BA I know you’re busy but when are we going to see your take down of the ‘Bad Astronomy’ in Ironman 2?

    Hey maybe you could do ‘THE TWILIGHT SAGA: ECLIPSE’ ??

    j/k about the undead thing.

  8. Doug

    @6

    I had the exact same thought. It’s cool to think that we’re just sitting here waiting for the image of the nova to reach us. I wonder how far away the photons are right now.

  9. Toothygrin

    @6/@8 Yup. I thought the same thing. “Cool, so that thing has already blown up. We just won’t get to see it for a while…” heh

  10. Jon Hanford

    @5 Cindy,

    Expansion velocities have been measured for the lobes and the ring. From the paper I linked to above:

    “The bipolar lobes of the hourglass expand at 70 km/s, whereas the ring around the waist of the hourglass expands at 30 km/s.”

    Also from the abstract:

    “Both the ring and the bipolar lobes have about the same dynamical age, indicating a common origin and a major outburst and mass-loss event 6630 yr ago. The ionized mass within the hourglass is between 0.3 [solar mass] and 0.6 [solar mass] – quite comparable to the total mass suggested for the expanding (pre-supernova) shell around SN 1987 A.”

    “Sher 25 and its hourglass-shaped nebula appear to be moving to the south-west with respect to the ambient interstellar medium, and ram pressure has apparently deformed the hourglass.”

    I’m trying to picture Sher 25 closeup, cruising along with it’s newly formed bipolar nebula being buffeted by the stellar winds of other supergiant stars in NGC 3603. What an image!

  11. That is great and helping us understand how this universe builds new suns and planets etc.

    Good work Phil Plait

  12. ian

    Can you draw the hourglass? I swear I can’t see it :/

  13. FC

    Arrggg, beat me to it #6. But yes, that was my first thought, if it’s 20,000 light years away and has no more than 20,000 years to live, it’s probably exploded by now. Ah, special relativity and the light speed limit. One day, I suspect we’re going to discover things that will modify and enhance that theory (not any time soon though).

    While there is no preferred reference according to relativity, situations such as these do prove that many different things are happening simultaneously in the universe, however it’s just not possible to OBSERVE them in real time, but that makes it no less real. It makes you wonder if a universal frame of frame does indeed exist but maybe in a separate undiscovered dimension. Well it’s a fantasy but one can dream.

  14. Michael

    Are Sher 25 and NGC 3603 close enough to each other to interact when Sher 25 blows?

    If they are/were what affect could a nearby supernova have on the cluster?

  15. Pi-needles

    Stunning picture. Hubble excels again & that’s one of its best so far. :-)

    For a second there, I read that awesome stars name as “Cher-25″ and thought she may look it but Cher’s a *lot* older than that – Cher-ly! ;-)

  16. Messier Tidy Upper

    W-h-o-a-h! :-)

    Magnificent. Splendid. Superluminous image. I love it. :-)

    Sher 25 is certainly one fascinating and impressive superstar.

    I’m currently finishing an article on Zeta-1 Scorpii : a star one to 1.5 *million* times brigher than our Sun as mentioned recently here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/07/02/big-bruiser-stars-form-like-their-wimpy-little-siblings/#comment-279837

    & by Kaler here :

    http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/zeta1sco.html

    & visible on this recent Astronomy Picture Of the Day website recently – June 24th 2010 :

    http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap100624.html

    As part of a marvellous region of star birth that also happens to be
    my favourite binocular field around Mu-1 & 2 and Zeta-1 & 2 Scorpii and the open cluster NGC 6321 which is also known as the “Northern Jewel Box” by some; incl. acclaimed Aussie photographer Steve Parrish. :-)

    Wnder how Sher-25 compares with Zeta-1 Sco or Eta Carinae or the Pistol Star – and which one of these stellar titans will be the first to explode?! ;-)

    Such unfathomably super-luminous, adjective-shattering, superlative beyond superlatives stars never fail to blow my mind and inspire awe.

    Thanks Bad Astronomer. :-)

  17. Cz-David

    I have just found my new wallpaper

  18. Messier Tidy Upper

    BTW An even better (IMHON) view with more details of that “Dark Tower in Scorpius” June 24th APOD can be seen here :

    http://panther-observatory.com/gallery/deepsky/doc/NGC6231_wide.htm

    via a link from that image.

    In the original APOD picture, I think – could be mistaken but *think* – that Zeta-1 Scorpii is the bright white-ish star in the center just down from the “2″ in “24″ and that the vividly orange star down slightly diagonally to the right of it is Zeta-2 Scorpii which is an orange giant in the foreground 151 ly away. Remember that Zeta -1 Sco, Zeta-2′s apparent “Bayer letter” companion is an extremely distant hypergiant and outlying member of the NCG 6321 cluster 6,500 light years from us versus the 800 odd for Rigel!

    (Source : Ridpath & Tirion, Collins Guide to Stars & Planets, Collins, 2007.)

    Mu 1 & 2 then would be the blue-white binary near the middle of the left hand side there and the lower bright blue-white star just left of the “The” in “The Dark Tower” and in line with the “C” of the blue word ‘Copyright’ for the line below might be Epsilon Scorpii?

    Can anyone confirm or refute this please? :-)

  19. Messier Tidy Upper

    Just one more astrophoto of the region around Zeta-1 Scorpii that’s so good (IMHON) that I’ve just got to share with y’all – via “google images search” & not taken by me alas :

    http://mstecker.com/images/astronomy/AstroimageIndex/starfields/s343stn3w.JPG

    & also thought I’d let y’all know I’ve found another name for NCG 6231 that I hadn’t encountered before – “little Pleiades” – used by that astrophotographer, Michael A. Stecker :

    >IC 4628, NGC 6231, zeta Scorpii Red emission nebula IC 4628 is in the north (left), followed by open cluster NGC 6231 (called by some “Little Pleiades”) and stars zeta Scorpii in the south (right).

    Hope that’s okay with him – can’t see why it wouldn’t be! ;-)

    I’ll also provide this linked image to give an idea of my favourite binocular field (Mu1&2, Zeta 1& 2) although it looks much better “in life” than in this photo methinks :

    http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/sco-z-t.jpg

    That’s more just as a map for comparison – hope it helps. :-)

  20. Cz-David

    PAREIDOLIA, pareidolia everywhere. Where would we be without pareidolia.
    I just like writing pareidolia.

    Anyway this is what just two people could find in that picture:
    http://www.skoron.ic.cz/pareidolia.jpg
    The one on the bottom is a knee… if anyone is wondering…

  21. Jess Tauber

    I’m with pi-needles on this- though as I recall, Cher, 25, was pretty big by then, and hot to boot. She didn’t really need Sonny, to be SUNNY! IIRC it was Sonny that went out with a bang, though. Supernova or no, the ‘heat’ goes on….La-di-da-di-diiii, la-di-da-di-daaaa

  22. Brian Too

    6. Chris,

    This is a common conceptual problem. While what you are saying is essentially true, it doesn’t matter. General Relativity puts a cap on the speed of light in a vacuum, and there’s no way of going any faster. No way for anything, and that includes information.

    Therefore, imagine that Sher 25 did indeed go supernova, today. It cannot affect us, and we cannot affect it, for 20,000 years. We can’t even know that it happened, beyond predicting it. Everything that we know for sure about Sher 25, that we can measure today, happened 20,000 years ago and that’s the closest we can get to it in spacetime. Without picking up and moving closer that is.

    This is why looking at the universe is like looking into the heart of a real time machine. Everything you see is old. Even light from Sol is 8 minutes old.

    The sun could release a giant flare right now and we wouldn’t know for 8 minutes. You can’t beam a picture from a satellite in close orbit around the sun because the beam itself is composed of photons or microwaves or radio waves and those also travel at the speed of light. You’d get the image from the satellite at the same time you could just look up in the sky and see it directly. In fact your camera system and image processing would actually add a small additional time delay, making the whole effort useless from a pure timeliness perspective. There’s just no way around the time it takes.

    Kindly note that all of the preceding ignores hypothetical tachyons, wormholes, warp drives and all the rest. Figure those out and you might find a loophole of sorts.

  23. Paul Hannah

    Re:

    “That’s about as massive as a star can get without tearing itself apart!”

    Aren’t Hypergiants like VY Canis Majoris in the hundreds if not thousands of times larger than our sun? Or am I confusing mass with size?

    Paul

  24. Jo Dean

    Wow, some of the most incredible images I have ever seen!

    Lou
    http://www.web-anonymity.au.tc

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ 24. Paul Hannah :

    Aren’t Hypergiants like VY Canis Majoris in the hundreds if not thousands of times larger than our sun? Or am I confusing mass with size?

    I think so – red supergiants are much less dense and thus larger, blue supergiants are more compact and hotter. The two types have the same mass (range) and in factcan evolve and change into on another. They may start out as O type blue supergiants then as they age, they swell out cool down and go through the range of white-yellow-orange and finally red hypergiants.

    In fact, a quirk of stellar evolution menas that blue hypergiants can sometimes be more massive than red ones.

    For really super massive hypergiants there are several possibilities for their evolutionary paths depending on mass. If a star is under 40 solar masses, it will follow the evolutionary trail of a supergiant star, shifting from blue to red supergiant class and passing through phases of variability. (Incl. becoming Cepheid variables for arelativelybrief I think – but I could be wrong there!?) Eventually, the star will terminate its stellar existence as a supernovae either as a red supergiant or, as with the progenitor of SN 1987 A, after evolving back into a blue supergiant.

    Yet for stars that are well over 40 solar masses it turns out that they cannot evolve through a red supergiant phase. Instead, the star becomes first a Luminous Blue Variable then a Wolf Rayet star – stalled in its evolution by what is known as the Humphreys-Davidson or HD limit. Finally however, like the under 40 solar mass star, the 40 + solar mass star will go supernova or even hypernova leaving behind a black hole.

    (Source : James Kaler, “Hypergiants.” in ‘Astronomy’ magazine, March 1994, Kalmbach Publishing Co March 1994.)

    There is also one other factor of note here which is that there is a so-far theoretical class of stars far more massive than any shining today (up to 300 times the mass of our Sun if I recall right!) but quite different again. These are the first stars ever born which are called Population III stars.*

    The original generation of stars formed only a few hundred million years after the Big Bang. Cosmologists and astronomers think these stars were very different from this eras – much more massive, luminous and shorter-lived again than subsequent stars because of clouds they formed from would have been totally devoid of elements other than hydrogen and helium. These Population III stars quickly went supernova at the end of their short lives, forging and scattering the more complex elements from which the later stellar generatuions or “populations” formed. No population III star has yet been observed – they are known through theory and legacy only. So far.

    —-

    * Population II stars are metal poor and include many sub-dwraf stars and euivalent clasees eg. RR Lyrae or (globular) “Cluster” variables insteadof Cepheids. Our Sun and the other star inthe Milky Way’s disk and spiral arms are meta;l rich population I stars.

  26. Messier Tidy Upper

    Here’s a few interesting links to check out if folks are still curious and want to find out more here :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypergiant

    &

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eddington_limit

    Plus for getting things in some sort of perspective in a stunning way check out this old BA blog thread :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/06/12/scale/

    Note that at the 1 minute 10 seconds or so mark the blue hypergiant Pistol Star is smaller but much more massive than the red supergiants Antares A and Mu Cephei that follow it before we get to VY Canis Majoris the red hypergiant which may actually be *less* massive than the Pistol Star even though it is considerably larger in radius. I love that videoclip. :-)

  27. Donovan

    What a load of hog wash. You mean to tell me that one of the lights in the celestial sphere is going to evolve into a terrific Chevy in 20,000 years? And you want me to believe that it’s some 20,000 light years away, but refuse to note if that’s halogen lights, florescent lights, LED lights, or tiny little Christmas lights. Not buying it, no sir. Scientists IS stupid!

    Just kidding, but the 20,000/20,000 comment was taken.

  28. Oscar Ferro

    Regarding the star with less than 20000 years of life, positioned at 20000 light-years from us:

    “No, Lieutenant, your men are already dead”

  29. Mike

    I don’t know of SN87As or such. I only know I like looking at pictures from space

  30. Derek

    Do someone know what forms the striking dark patches? In this pic, the very bottom right hand corner looks like something blew into the cloud from the outside – so there is a swispy dark patch.

    Do anyone know what makes those?
    To me, dark patches are always the most interesting parts of nebula.

  31. Jon Hanford

    @33 Derek,

    Those dark patches are called dark nebulae and are composed of gas and dust that appear non-illuminated from our line of sight. These particular dark nebulae are easy to see because of the bright nebulae in the background. An example of a type of dark nebulae that stands out because it dims distant stars behind it is Barnard 92. And right now, Pluto is transiting this dark nebula in Sagittarius: http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/

    Spaceweather.com has additional images of this unique event. :D

  32. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Derek :

    These dark patches are obscuring clouds of dust and gas known as dark nebulae :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_nebula

    Many were catalogued by Edward Emerson Barnard one of the greatest observational astronomers ever (& a personal hero of mine) who has an amazing life story. See a chronology of E. E. Barnard & his discoveries (which most famously include the second closest and fastest moving star in the sky as well as comets, galaxies and nebula) here :

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2010/06/22/runaway-star-2/#comment-276873

    Because of Barnard many dark nebulae are catalogued as, for instance, Barnard 33 (better know as the Horsehead Nebula) or Barnard 72 (a.k.a. the Snake Nebula) and so on.

    There is another type of dark nebula too which are where stars and planets are actually forming deep in dark coccoons of material known as Bok globules – see :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bok_globule

    @32. Mike Says:

    I don’t know of SN87As or such. I only know I like looking at pictures from space

    The pictures are wonderful but I find they are even more amazing and mind-blowing when you know a bit more about them and have soem understanding of what the astounding objects in them actually are! :-)

    As for “SN 87 A” I think you’re meaning this :

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SN_1987A

    recent bright supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud aren’t you? Supernova 87 would’ve occurred way back during the Roman Empire! ;-)

  33. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ 33 ^ Derek – Those “patches” are known as dark nebulae & are clouds of dust and gas obscuring the light from the stars behind them. The famous Horsehead nebula in Orion is a good example as is the Coalsack Nebula in the Southern Cross.

    Many of these dark (obscuration?) nebula have Barnard numbers (eg. the Horsehead nebula is also known as Barnard 33) and doing a wikipedia search for dark nebulae & Edward Emerson Barnard who first ctaalogued many of them – and is an astronomical hero of mine with an inspiring life story – could be interesting for you. :-)

    I’ve posted some links in another earlier comment above but it’s still “awaiting moderation” now so hopefully you’ll see more when it passes that & appears above this comment. :-)

  34. Messier Tidy Upper

    Still hasn’t passed moderation? Nup. Okay trying again with links spaced out into non-links :

    ****

    34. Messier Tidy Upper Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation.
    July 9th, 2010 at 1:06 am

    @ ^ Derek :

    These dark patches are obscuring clouds of dust and gas known as dark nebulae :

    http: // en.wikipedia.org / wiki/ Dark_nebula

    Many were catalogued by Edward Emerson Barnard one of the greatest observational astronomers ever (& a personal hero of mine) who has an amazing life story. See a chronology of E. E. Barnard & his discoveries (which most famously include the second closest and fastest moving star in the sky as well as comets, galaxies and nebula) here :

    http: / / blogs.discovermagazine. com / badastronomy/ 2010/06/22/ runaway-star-2/ #comment-276873

    Because of Barnard many dark nebulae are catalogued as, for instance, Barnard 33 (better known as the Horsehead Nebula) or Barnard 72 (a.k.a. the Snake Nebula) and so on.

    There is another type of dark nebula too which are where stars and planets are actually forming deep in dark coccoons of material known as Bok globules – see :

    http: // en.wikipedia.org / wiki / Bok_globule

    @32. Mike Says:

    I don’t know of SN87As or such. I only know I like looking at pictures from space

    The pictures are wonderful but I find they are even more amazing and mind-blowing when you know a bit more about them and have some understanding of what the astounding objects in them actually are! ;-)

    As for “SN 87 A” I think you’re meaning this :

    http: / / en.wikipedia.org / wiki / SN_1987A

    recent bright supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud aren’t you? Supernova 87 would’ve occurred way back during the Roman Empire! ;-)

    (Cut’n’ paste the links then remove spaces & they should hopefully work.)

  35. Messier Tidy Upper

    @34. Jon Hanford :

    I see you beat me to it but got held up in moderation too. ;-)

    BTW. Thought you might like to know your link there took me to a different APOD image – “Moons Beyond the Rings of Saturn” (July 12th image) instead.

    Maybe find it again and link under your name?

  36. Actually try here – click on my name & it will hopefully take you to the right one : “Dim World, Dark nebula” July 8th 2010

    Dim, distant, dwarf planet Pluto can be hard to spot, especially in recent months as it wanders through the crowded starfields of Sagittarius and the central Milky Way. But fortunately for backyard Pluto hunters, it crossed in front of a dark nebula in early July. The diminutive world is marked with two short lines near the center of this skyscape recorded from New Mexico Skies on July 5. Pluto stands out only because obscuring dark nebula Barnard 92 (B92) blocks the background of the Milky Way’s congeries of faint, innumerable stars. Another of astronomer E. E. Barnard’s cataloged dark markings on the sky, B93, is easy to pick out just left of B92. Prominent at the lower left is open star cluster NGC 6603. In fact, Pluto, dark nebulae, and star cluster all lie within a portion of M24, also known as the Sagittarius Star Cloud, filling most of the frame.

  37. Ash

    Whats the name of the big star at the top right part of the 1st pic ? Is that a red giant as well ?

    Thanks

  38. Ash

    Anybody knows ?

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