Jet Propulsion's Spitzer Space Telescope Finds Baby Stars

Published : Friday, March 29, 2019 | 7:42 AM

Officially known as W40, this red butterfly in space is a nebula, or a giant cloud of gas and dust. The "wings" of the butterfly are giant bubbles of gas being blown from the inside out by massive stars. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Spitzer Space Telescope mission has taken images of what looks like a red butterfly in space, which in reality is a nursery for hundreds of baby stars, Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) announced March 27.

JPL in Pasadena manages the telescope for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C.

Officially named Westerhout 40, or W40, the red butterfly is a nebula; a giant cloud of gas and dust in space where new stars may form.

What looks like the butterfly’s two “wings” are actually giant bubbles of hot, interstellar gas blowing from the hottest, most massive stars in this region.

W40 is about 1,400 light-years from the Sun, about the same distance as the well-known Orion nebula, although the two are almost 180 degrees apart in the sky.

Besides being beautiful, W40 exemplifies how the formation of stars results in the destruction of the very clouds that helped create them. Inside giant clouds of gas and dust in space, the force of gravity pulls material together into dense clumps.

These clumps sometimes reach a critical density that allows stars to form at their cores, JPL said, but the process also disperses the gas and dust, breaking up dense clumps and reducing, or halting, new star formation.

W40 and Orion are two of the nearest regions in which massive stars – with masses upwards of 10 times that of the Sun – have been observed to be forming, JPL said.

Another cluster of stars, named Serpens South, can be seen to the upper right of W40 in the image taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Although both Serpens South and the cluster at the heart of W40 are young in astronomical terms – less than a few million years old – Serpens South is the younger of the two. Its stars are still embedded within their cloud but will someday break out to produce bubbles like those of W40.

Spitzer has also produced a more detailed image of the Serpens South cluster, which can be seen on the mission’s website, www.spitzer.caltech.edu/images/2120.

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