New Image Shows Brilliant Star In A Colorful Neighborhood

July 28, 2010

A spectacular new image from ESO’s Wide Field Imager at the La Silla Observatory in Chile shows the brilliant and unusual star WR 22 and its colorful surroundings. WR 22 is a very hot and bright star that is shedding its atmosphere into space at a rate many millions of times faster than the Sun. It lies in the outer part of the dramatic Carina Nebula from which it formed.

Very massive stars live fast and die young. Some of these stellar beacons have such intense radiation passing through their thick atmospheres late in their lives that they shed material into space many millions of times more quickly than relatively sedate stars such as the Sun. These rare, very hot and massive objects are known as Wolf”“Rayet stars, after the two French astronomers who first identified them in the mid-nineteenth century, and one of the most massive ones yet measured is known as WR 22. It appears at the center of this picture, which was created from images taken through red, green and blue filters with the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. WR 22 is a member of a double star system and has been measured to have a mass at least 70 times that of the Sun.

WR 22 lies in the southern constellation of Carina, the keel of Jason’s ship Argo in Greek mythology. Although the star lies over 5000 light-years from the Earth it is so bright that it can just be faintly seen with the unaided eye under good conditions. WR 22 is one of many exceptionally brilliant stars associated with the beautiful Carina Nebula (also known as NGC 3372) and the outer part of this huge region of star formation in the southern Milky Way forms the colorful backdrop to this image.

The subtle colors of the rich background tapestry are a result of the interactions between the intense ultraviolet radiation coming from hot massive stars, including WR 22, and the vast gas clouds, mostly hydrogen, from which they formed.

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ESO, the European Southern Observatory, is the foremost intergovernmental astronomy organization in Europe and the world’s most productive astronomical observatory. It is supported by 14 countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. ESO carries out an ambitious program focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities enabling astronomers to make important scientific discoveries. ESO also plays a leading role in promoting and organizing cooperation in astronomical research. ESO operates three unique world-class observing sites in Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor. At Paranal, ESO operates the Very Large Telescope, the world’s most advanced visible-light astronomical observatory and VISTA, the world’s largest survey telescope. ESO is the European partner of a revolutionary astronomical telescope ALMA, the largest astronomical project in existence. ESO is currently planning a 42-meter European Extremely Large optical/near-infrared Telescope, the E-ELT, which will become “the world’s biggest eye on the sky”.

Image Caption: This image of part of the Carina Nebula was created from images taken through red, green and blue filters with the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. It is centered on the unusual hot massive young star WR 22, a member of the rare class of Wolf”“Rayet stars. The field of view is 0.55 x 0.55 degrees, covering a 72 x 72 light-year region at the distance of the nebula. Credit: ESO

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