Herschel Space Observatory sees stars being born

Infrared telescope penetrates the heart of a stellar nursery

Peering into the heart of a dust-covered stellar nursery, a new infrared observatory has spied some 700 stars in the making. At the moment, the soon-to-be stars are just clumps of dust and gas. But about 100 of the clumps are protostars, embryonic bodies about to initiate nuclear fusion at their cores and become bona fide stars. The other 600 objects are less mature but will ultimately develop into new stars.

STELLAR NURSERY Some 700 embryonic stars are crowded into filaments of dust in a star-making region (shown here in an infrared portrait) that lies 1,000 light-years from Earth. ESA

The European Space Agency’s Herschel Space Observatory discovered the dust-obscured bodies by recording emissions of long-wavelength infrared radiation, which unlike visible light penetrates through the embryos’ dusty cocoons. No other infrared satellite has been able to see into this dark, cold region, which lies 1,000 light-years from Earth in the Eagle constellation.

Herschel launched last May. In October, the observatory captured the image, which spans a region 65 light-years in diameter. The European Space Agency released the portrait, one of the first scientific images recorded by the telescope, on December 16.

By studying the Eagle star-forming region and 14 other star-birthing sites in the Milky Way, Herschel may uncover how different stellar environments determine the number of baby stars and the range of masses of those stars in a region. The observatory features the largest telescope mirror—3.5 meters in diameter—ever flown into space.

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