Astronomers have found some of the youngest stars ever seen, thanks to the Herschel space observatory, a European Space Agency mission with important NASA contributions.
stronomers have found some of the youngest stars ever seen, thanks to the Herschel space observatory, a European Space Agency mission with important NASA contributions. Observations from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the Atacama Pathfinder Experiment (APEX) telescope in Chile, a collaboration involving the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany, the Onsala Space Observatory in Sweden, and the European Southern Observatory in Germany, contributed to the findings.
Dense envelopes of gas and dust surround the fledging stars known as protostars, making their detection difficult. The 15 newly observed protostars turned up by surprise in a survey of the biggest site of star formation near our solar system, located in the constellation Orion. The discovery gives scientists a peek into one of the earliest and least understood phases of star formation.
"Herschel has revealed the largest ensemble of such young stars in a single star-forming region," said Amelia Stutz, lead author of a paper to be published in The Astrophysical Journal and a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany. "With these results, we are getting closer to witnessing the moment when a star begins to form."
Of NASA's 15 newly discovered protostars, 11 possess very red colors, meaning their light output trends toward the low-energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum. This output indicates the stars are still embedded deeply in a gaseous envelope, meaning they are very young. An additional seven protostars previously seen by Spitzer share this characteristic.
Together, these 18 budding stars comprise only five percent of the protostars and candidate protostars observed in Orion. That figure implies the very youngest stars spend perhaps 25,000 years in this phase of their development, a mere blink of an eye considering a star like our sun lives for about 10 billion years.
Researchers hope to document chronologically each stage of a star's development rather like a family album, from before birth to early infancy, when planets also take shape.
"With these recent findings, we add an important missing photo to the family album of stellar development," said Glenn Wahlgren, Herschel Program Scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "Herschel has allowed us to study stars in their infancy."
Herschel is a European Space Agency mission, with science instruments provided by a consortia of European institutes with important participation by NASA. NASA's Herschel Project Office is based at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. JPL is a division of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena.