NASA SOFIA Images Massive Star Cluster
July 10, 2013

NASA Releases SOFIA Images Of Massive Star Cluster

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

NASA astronomers have taken new images of a recently born star cluster sitting in the W3 region about 6,400 light years away from Earth. The new star cluster, named W3A, is seen in the images floating in the depths of the large gas and dust cloud from which it formed. A close-up image taken by NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) shows the violent interaction zone around the massive star cluster.

The radiation and solar winds around these stars will eventually shred and disperse their birth cloud, which could potentially trigger the formation of more stars in adjacent clouds. Astronomers hope images like this will help them understand the effects that the largest stars in the cloud have on their smaller siblings.

Scientists believe most of the stars in the Milky Way have formed in environments such as this. The processes involved are challenging to follow because these hot stars are surrounded by clouds of interstellar material. Astronomers must use observatories like SOFIA in order to see through the clouds and study the internal structures and processes.

The team used the Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) and SOFIA's large telescope to dig into the W3 region's star formation. The false-color image combines radiation from fluorescing large molecules at a wavelength of seven microns  (shown in blue); warm dust grains at 19.7 microns, (shown in green); and 37.1 microns, (in red).

These images reveal the presence of about 15 massive stars in various stages of their growth. A small bubble in the left side of the image reveals an area that has been cleared out of the gas and dust by the most massive star in the cluster. The bubble is surrounded by a dense shell of material (shown in green) in which some of the dust and all of the large molecules have been destroyed.

Astronomers have discovered evidence that the expansion of bubbles around massive new-born stars can compress nearby material and trigger the condensation of more stars.

SOFIA is on a Boeing 747SP aircraft modified to carry a 17-ton reflecting telescope at altitudes as high as 45,000 feet. This aircraft allows SOFIA to get above more than 99 percent of the water vapor in Earth's atmosphere. The telescope recently received major upgrades to help improve the systems' efficiency and operability. The upgrades fully integrated the telescope with the observatory's command and control system.