Baby stars blasting out jets of matter

By Phil Plait | March 16, 2011 6:00 am

I know I’ve been posting a lot of astropr0n lately, but there’s just been so much cool stuff the past few days (and there’s more to come)! The European Space Agency just threw their hat into the ring with this crazy cool image of a young star blowing its stack:

[Click it to ennebulanate, or grab yourself some megasized 2100 x 2100 pixel action.]

I love this image! It shows the havoc caused by young stars as they spew out material at speed upwards of a million kilometers per hour. What you’re seeing is actually a small part of a star-forming region surrounding the star R Corona Australis, a nearby 550 light years away. It’s a densely packed cloud of thick dust and gas, completely hiding the stars inside and behind it. It’s not terribly big, only a couple of light years across — compare that to the Orion Nebula, which is 20 light years across (and that’s only the visible portion; it’s part of a dark cloud that’s much larger). Or the Tarantula nebula, which I posted about yesterday, which is a thousand light years across!

Even though it’s small, it’s the birthplace of many stars. Two such stars reveal their presence here; not by their light, but by blowing out long streamers of matter called jets. Technically, they’re called Herbig Haro objects (I have an explanation of these objects in an earlier post, which also has a stunningly lovely picture). One of them is the bright series of bow shocks leading right down to that brightly glowing blob of gas at the bottom of the picture. The curved waves are usually caused by episodic spasms from the star, expelling gusts of wind which interact with previously blown-out material. The long, bright streamer to the left of the jet is probably material compressed by the jet as it expands. It’s not actually part of the jet itself, and shines by reflected starlight.

That blob at the bottom is very interesting. It’s probably where the jet from the star has plowed into so much material that it’s slowed down radically, and vast amounts of matter have piled up in front like snow in a snowplow. The gas in there must be violently turbulent, and you can see the filaments of gas flowing around it.

The second jet is harder to see, but it’s on the right, and can be seen as a series of short vertical arcs that are blue and red. The star blasting that jet out is well off to the upper left of this picture.

Last year, the ESO released a wider-angle view of this region:

You can see the comma-shaped material near the center here, as well as the bright terminus blob of the jet at the bottom… but the jets are essentially invisible. That’s because the picture up top was taken using filters which accentuates the glow from hydrogen and sulfur gas (common in Herbig Haro outflows), but the wider image is more true-color. Only very bright gas shows up well.

Although this region is small, it’s making several dozen stars, a dozen of which at least are Herbig Haro objects. Their jets slam into the surrounding gas, really making a mess of it.

Seeing something like this, it’s hard not to wonder what the local scene looked like when the Sun was born. Did the elements which make up our bodies, our planet, our star, coalesce in a small cloud like this, or a giant factory like the Tarantula or Orion? Some dense clouds form only one or two stars, and we may have come from one of those! Only by studying these gorgeous objects will we ever know the answer that.

I think it’s cool we can even ask that question, but it’s truly fantastic that we can actually expect to figure out the answer.

Image credit: ESO

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (21)

  1. eric

    In addition to the astromical goodness, there’s some pretty good pareidolia in the upper left part of the first pic, too. Looks like a face.

  2. Maybe it’s my lack of coffee, or just my generally juvenile sense of humour, but “astropr0n” just made me giggle. :D Great way to start a morning.

  3. Messier Tidy Upper

    Love this photo – superluminous! :-)

    Seeing something like this, it’s hard not to wonder what the local scene looked like when the Sun was born. … [snip] Only by studying these gorgeous objects will we ever know the answer that.

    Not even if we build a working time machine then? ;-)

    Some dense clouds form only one or two stars, and we may have come from one of those!

    Don’t astronomers think the existence of the “Kuiper cliff” is astrong indication our very youthful or still-forming Sun was dangerously close to an really hot O-B type star that started stripping away the outer edge of that outermost region of our solar system wuith its intense UV light and stellar winds?

  4. geekGirl

    Dear Phil,
    Please continue posting as much astropron as possible. With all the bad news (the catastrophes in Japan, the brutality of dictators in the Middle East, Congress trying to repeal science), it’s nice to have a place to come and look at pretty pictures, read cool explanations, and remember that the universe is indeed a magnificent place.
    My best,
    Geek Girl

  5. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ geekGirl : Seconded by me. :-)

    ****

    Is that small oval of red at the bottom right a separate background / foreground planetary nebula? Or is it also part of that R Corona Australis star formation region too?

    Does anyone know & care to enlighten us, please?

  6. Messier Tidy Upper

    Those wanting to see what this area of sky – Corona Australis constellation – looks like can check out Kaler’s constellation photomap here :

    http://stars.astro.illinois.edu/sow/cra-t.html

    with extra info here :

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

    on its lucida (brightest star – usually but not always labelled Alpha)

    With this link :

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

    taking you to the wiki-stub for R Coronae Australis.

    Hope these are handy / interesting for folks. :-)

  7. It seems to me that it’s getting to the point where actual images are overtaking “artist’s conception” in their beauty.

    And I have to agree with “eric” (#1) about the face. There are “clearly” two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and a chin, along with long flowing hair, looking directly at the bright start just below center.

  8. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Ken B. : “It seems to me that it’s getting to the point where actual images are overtaking “artist’s conception” in their beauty.”

    Yes, although, there are different kinds of beauty in the cosmos and each of these can be superb in their own ways. :-)

    Bonus links if folks want them :

    http://www.ianridpath.com/startales/coronaaustralis.htm

    gives the mythological background plus more via Ridpath’s star tales site.

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

    Is the equal lucida of Corona Australis unaided eye~wise.

    Plus :

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

    Alpha Telescopium which was apparently a former member of Corona Australis in in original Ptolemaic version! (See link 1 there.) :-)

  9. pontoppi

    Phil, just a quick correction:

    ESO = European Southern Observatory
    ESA = European Space Agency

    They’re often confused because of the similar acronyms but are actually completely separate organizations. ESO drives ground-based astronomy in Europe, while ESA (obviously) focuses on space-based facilities.

  10. Björn

    Okay, the word “astropr0n” combined with “stars blasting out jets of matter” is hilarious… although the “baby” part makes it kinda creepy.

  11. Read title as “Baby STARTS blasting out jets of matter”. Still cleaning the coffee off my monitor…

  12. ScottF

    Question for Phil or anyone who knows: Are stars in star clusters much closer together than say our sun is to its neighboring stars?

  13. Björn

    Yes, they are. A globular cluster can contain hundreds of thousands of stars in a region of only a few tens of lightyears across; the nearest star to the sun is roughly 4 light years away.

  14. IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE

    @ Björn,

    Affirmative, but globular clusters comprise mainly of very old stars, ranging from 10,000 to several million stars packed into regions from 10 to 30 light-years across, whereas open clusters generally contain less than a few hundred members within a region of up to about 30 light-years across, and are often very young.

  15. mfumbesi

    The last picture looks like a belly button..
    Great Astropron…

  16. Joseph G

    @#5 Geek Girl: Please continue posting as much astropron as possible. With all the bad news (the catastrophes in Japan, the brutality of dictators in the Middle East, Congress trying to repeal science), it’s nice to have a place to come and look at pretty pictures, read cool explanations, and remember that the universe is indeed a magnificent place.

    Hear, hear!

  17. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ #6 :

    Is that small oval of red at the bottom right a separate background / foreground planetary nebula? Or is it also part of that R Corona Australis star formation region too?

    Just to clarify – that’s in the second (lowermost) picture.

  18. Johan L

    Since I am a PhD student studying protostars in this particular region I thought I could try to answer some of the questions here. First, I am working with millimetre (“radio”) astronomy, studying the physics and chemistry of some very young stars in the white big fluffy thing (IRS7) which is just right of the “comma” in the second image. With millimetre and far-infrared astronomy you can study the extremely young protostars (Class 0 and Class I young stellar objects for star formation nerds), which are too deeply embedded in dust to be at all visible in the optical. So I don’t really know a lot about the optical studies of this region, but I’ll give it a try.

    Messier Tidy Upper: The red thing you are referring to is a Herbig-Haro object (HH object), and by using the Aladin sky atlas applet, I find that it is called HH101N. What I can tell from searching the databases, it is somewhat disputed whether this is a part of the R CrA cloud or not. Some claim that it (or rather, a protostar associated with it) is responsible for some other HH flows in the field, but its radial velocity (velocity away from us) is something in the order of -90 km/s (i.e. it is moving towards us), whereas R CrA has a radial velocity of 5 km/s. I don’t know enough about HH objects to tell whether it would be plausible with this difference or not.

    ScottF: As Björn and IVAN says, stars in clusters are more densely packed than stars like our sun. However (I think this is where your question is pointing), the sun might well have been formed in a cluster (like Orion or R CrA), and then pulled out. Remember that the Sun has been around for 4.6 billion years, and a lot can happen in that time.

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