Stellar nursery gives birth to quadruplets

Foursome helps test ideas about how stars form

Four star system

STELLAR FOURSOME  A young star is flanked by tendrils of gas (illustrated, left) that will eventually collapse to form a quadruple star system (right).

B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

A young stellar foursome is giving astronomers a rare peek at how stars form. New images reveal a quadruple star system, the youngest known, emerging from a cocoon of interstellar gas. The discovery shows how systems of two or more stars, which make up over half the stars in the galaxy, can arise out of threads of gas that break apart.

The stellar nursery contains one previously known star, surrounded by three clumps of gas collapsing under their own gravity. Over the next 40,000 years or so, the three knots of gas will turn into young stars, creating a gravitationally bound quadruple star system, researchers report in the Feb. 12 Nature. Eventually two of the stars will likely drift away, leaving the remaining pair as a binary star system.

Jaime Pineda, an astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, and colleagues discovered the quadruplets with the Very Large Array radio observatory while mapping ammonia gas in the nebula, which sits about 820 light-years away in the constellation Perseus.

Binary stars are ubiquitous in the galaxy, but astronomers don’t fully understand how they form. Figuring out the conditions under which most stars are born can help researchers answer a range of questions, such as how planets form.

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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