After performing what amounts to an 'interstellar prenatal scan', astronomers have discovered a monster — a star in the process of forming that could end up being one of the largest stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
The stellar womb that this star was found in was first photographed by NASA's Spitzer space telescope, and it was named 'Spitzer Dark Cloud (SDC) 335.579-0.292'. A swirling cloud of gas and dust, it's located about 11,000 light years away from us, and the matter in the cloud adds up to about 500 times the mass of our Sun. Astronomers had already figured there was good potential to find something growing inside it, but it took the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA), at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in northern Chile, to see inside that 'dark cloud' to find the monster lurking within. Like the Hershel Space Observatory and other infrared telescopes, ALMA 'sees' at the wavelengths where we know that light can 'slip past' interstellar dust, thus giving us a view of what would normally be hidden to us if we only used optical telescopes.
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"Even though we already believed that the region was a good candidate for being a massive star-forming cloud, we were not expecting to find such a massive embryonic star at its centre," said study leader Dr. Nicolas Peretto, according to an ESO statement. "This object is expected to form a star that is up to 100 times more massive than the Sun. Only about one in ten thousand of all the stars in the Milky Way reach that kind of mass!"
"Not only are these stars rare, but their births are extremely rapid and childhood short, so finding such a massive object so early in its evolution in our Galaxy is a spectacular result," co-author Professor Gary Fuller added in the statement.
This video takes us on a trip as it 'zooms in', using images from Spitzer and then ALMA, to reveal the growing star:
One of the incredible things about this find, beyond the immense size of the star, is that the observations were taken when ALMA was in its 'Early Science' phase, which started in 2011, when the array was only 25% complete. The advantage of the fully-functional ALMA is that it will be the largest telescope of its kind every constructed, and as far as telescopes go, size matters. The larger a telescope is — how wide its mirror is or how wide the 'array' is the case of infrared and radio telescopes — the more light or radiation it can collect, and thus give us better, more detailed images of what's out there.
"We managed to get these very detailed observations using only a fraction of ALMA’s ultimate potential," said Peretto. "ALMA will definitely revolutionize our knowledge of star formation, solving some current problems, and certainly raising new ones."
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ALMA was inaugurated in March of this year, when its 50th antenna was completed, but the entire array will have 66 antennas when it's completed. With this amazing find when it was only one-quarter complete, the information it's gathering now must be breathtaking, and I can't wait to see what it will see when it's done. One object of particular interest, which was captured by the now-decommissioned Herschel, is another embryonic star developing inside a 'galactic bubble' called RCW 120.
Whereas the star at the centre of Spitzer Dark Cloud 335.579-0.292 has an impressive 500 solar masses to draw from, the one inside RCW 120 has 2,000 solar masses at its disposal. Stars can only build up to 150 solar masses (as far as we know), but I want to see what ALMA picks up as this other star develops.
(Image and video courtesy: ALMA (ESO/NRAJ/NRAO)/NASA/Spitzer/JPL-Caltech/GLIMPSE)
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