Snake Nebula
February 26, 2014

New Snake Nebula Image Shows Stellar Nurseries

[ Watch the Video: Birth Of A Star A Family Affair ]

Lee Rannals for - Your Universe Online

Astronomers using the Smithsonian's Submillimeter Array (SMA) telescope have imaged the most detailed look yet of stellar nurseries within the Snake nebula.

The Snake nebula is about 11,700 light-years away from Earth towards the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus. The astronomers chose this nebula because it shows the potential to form many massive stars.

"To learn how stars form, we have to catch them in their earliest phases, while they're still deeply embedded in clouds of gas and dust, and the SMA is an excellent telescope to do so," lead author Ke Wang of the European Southern Observatory, who started the research as a predoctoral fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, said in a statement.

The Snake nebula is a series of dark absorption clouds made up of molecular gas and interstellar dust grains. This absorption causes stars behind the clouds to be hidden from view, making it look as if there is a starless void in the sky.

The scientists studied two spots within the nebula, known as P1 and P6, which helped detect a total of 23 cosmic “seeds.” These seeds are faintly glowing spots that could eventually birth one or more stars. They generally weigh between 5 and 25 times the mass of the Sun, and each one spans a few thousand astronomical units, which is defined as the distance between the Earth and Sun.

Previous theories say that high-mass stars form within these cores weighing at least 100 times the mass of the Sun. The latest findings show that this is not true, and that massive stars aren’t born alone but in groups.

"High-mass stars form in villages," Qizhou Zhang, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and co-author of the paper published in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, said in a statement. "It's a family affair."

The astronomers said they were surprised to find that these nebular patches had fragmented into individual star seeds so early in the star formation process. They were able to detect bipolar outflows and other signs of active, ongoing star formation. Eventually, the Snake nebula will dissolve and shine as a chain of several star clusters.