Squabbles in star nurseries result in celestial fireworks

Images of streamers of gas and dust reveal power of explosive interactions

composite image of stellar nursery

STELLAR FIRECRACKER  An interaction of young stars in Orion Molecular Core 1 ripped apart a stellar nursery, sending stars, gas and dust shooting into space. In this image — a composite of data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array and the Gemini South telescope, both in Chile — gas moving quickly toward Earth is blue, while slower-moving gas is redder.

J. Bally; B. Saxton (NRAO, AUI, NSF), ALMA (ESO, NAOJ, NRAO); Gemini Observatory/AURA

A stellar game of chicken between two young stars about 500 years ago has produced some fantastic celestial fireworks, new images released on April 7 by the European Southern Observatory reveal.

Whether or not the stellar duo collided is unclear. But their close encounter sent hundreds of streamers of gas, dust and other young stars shooting into space like an exploding firecracker. Using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile, John Bally of the University of Colorado Boulder and colleagues made the first measurements of the velocities of carbon monoxide gas in the streamers. From the data, they identified the spot where the stars probably interacted and determined that the encounter ripped apart the stellar nursery in which the stars were born. Such a cataclysmic event flung nursery debris into space at speeds faster than 540,000 kilometers an hour.

The dueling stars were born in a stellar nursery called Orion Molecular Core 1, about 1,500 light-years from Earth behind the Orion Nebula. There, gas weighing 100 suns collapses under its own gravity, making the material dense enough for embryotic stars to take shape. Gravity can pull those stellar seeds toward each other, with some grazing or colliding with each other and violently erupting. In this case, the encounter produced a kick as powerful as the energy the sun emits over 10 million years.

This explosion may have initially released a burst of infrared light lasting years to decades. If so, such spars among young stars might explain mysterious infrared flashes observed in other galaxies, the scientists suggest.

Ashley Yeager is the associate news editor at Science News. She has worked at The Scientist, the Simons Foundation, Duke University and the W.M. Keck Observatory, and was the web producer for Science News from 2013 to 2015. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and a master’s degree in science writing from MIT.

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