National Geographic

Newborn Stars Sculpt a Treacherous Celestial Landscape

Every now and then, it’s good to take a moment and share a gorgeous space photo.

The glowing pink tuft in the center of this ESO image is the star-forming region Gum 15, located 3,000 light-years away in the constellation Vela. From afar, the colorful puff appears riven with dark voids that give it an almost organic appearance, like a chunk of tissue covered with dark blood vessels. (That dark fork is actually a thick patch of dust, though.)

Scientists estimate that thousands of stars are born in Gum 15 over the span of a few million years, which is more or less like a cosmic sigh.

Though beautiful, Gum 15 is a violent, blustery place, a stellar nursery shaped by wild young stars spewing radiation. Eventually, these young stars will age, explode and die. But before that, their energy and winds will continue to cleave the gentle clouds of their nursery and shave electrons from the surrounding hydrogen atoms. When those atoms recapture their lost electrons, they glow a characteristic red color – which is why Gum 15 shines as it does.

In the lower left is the star cluster NGC 2671, and in the lower right, you can see some of the tangled filaments of the Vela supernova remnant.

This concludes our gratuitous space photo presentation.

There are 6 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. David Bump
    July 14, 2014

    I’ve always wondered when I’ve seen these stories, how do they know this is an area of star BIRTH and not some stellar graveyard where gravitational forces are ripping stars apart in a particularly energetic way, or something like that? All we’ve got is a picture with a bunch of bright stars together that are assumed to be young because they fit certain expectations, but is there something about these pictures that shows how or what could be causing all these places to be sucking in hydrogen to form stars, rather than spewing it out in all that heat — radiation pressure and all that? The website seems to indicate all the stars there have already formed and doesn’t say anything about birthing going on, so… ??

  2. Kudzu
    July 20, 2014

    @David Bump: Basically it’s physics. There are certain things that can and cannot happen. according to physics as we know it. saying stars are ‘assumed to be young’ because they look a certain way is the same as saying a baby is assumed to be young; it’s possible that any given baby might in fact be 80 years old, but if so what we know about biology would be drastically wrong in that case.

    Similarly it’s possible that these stars are in fact being destroyed but that would mean casting aside all the evidence we have for them being young, elemental abundances, the way gas is moving and so on and raise an endless set of questions as to what mysterious process is affecting all these stars at the same time.

    Besides, we know what a star tearing itself apart looks like, it’s either a bloating planetary nebula or a violent nova. Stars ‘unforming’ at this slow pace would be as odd as a rock falling up.

    • David Bump
      July 20, 2014

      I can see where a spectral analysis showing low levels of heavier elements (all relative of course, anything is heavier than hydrogen) would be a good clue we’re not seeing an old star falling apart, but I don’t think we can so lightly reassure ourselves of our certainty that we’re seeing the normal process of star formation by comparisons with biology. We’ve observed untold numbers of cases of biological reproduction from start to finish, we’ve just recently identified these cases we believe are stars forming. For all we know, all the successful stars were formed early on, and what we’re seeing here is “wannabees” that started to form but aren’t going to make it, or are freaks that will have a cosmic (relative) moment as stars and then fizzle out. At one time we might have thought the universe was eternal and so would expect stars to be continually replenished, but now we know that is not necessarily the case. As much as we’d like to feel sure we’ve solved this mystery, deep space has turned out to have surprises we never imagined possible.

      • Kudzu
        July 24, 2014

        I would argue that our understanding of biology and astrophysics are of about equal pedigree, we have been studying them for about the same amount of time and in many ways understand them to similar levels of detail.

        We must use Occam’s razor in this case; it is not just the spectra of starlight that provides evidence but also the movement of stars and gas (Through their Doppler shift) and the appearance of stellar nurseries and nebulae that provide a solid body of evidence backed up by models. It is easy to dismiss this framework but much harder to think of anything that can replace it.

        If for example all stars formed early on what mechanism stopped star formation, at what point and how sharply did star formation decline? Why are there large stars still that, given their energy output, distribution and our theories of nuclear interactions, should only last a few million years? Why are there things that appear to be stellar nurseries but aren’t? (For example they have a lot of the raw gas, was all the gas used up? What ensured that that happened?)

        The issue with the eternal universe (Which still has its adherents, not to mention the cyclic universe models…) was that it was rejected in the mainstream because various observations arose that contradicted it. (The fact that the universe appeared to be expanding for example.) Star formation however does not have any ‘big holes’ in it, no ‘smoking guns’ that suggest our current understanding is terribly wrong. (Far FAR from everything is solved of course but the same can be said for biology.)

        Indeed many eternal universe supporters took your stance as evidence mounted; how could we tell the universe was really expanding? Maybe it was just our bit? Or ‘tired light’? In the end speculation is fine and good but until a coherent and solid theory is proposed the reining theory is unchallenged.

  3. Sanat Kumar Kar
    July 25, 2014

    Layman’s question: this is present state or what it was 3000 light yrs ago?

    • Kudzu
      July 29, 2014

      It is indeed as it appeared 3’000 years ago; even the sun we can see in the day is not a present image but one of it eight minutes before our observing it. Of course 3’000 years is a blink of an eye to a star so the images should capture at least roughly the present state of things.

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