"The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean... Recently, we've managed to wade a little way out, and the water seems inviting." - Carl Sagan
Infant stars peek out from dusty cradles
Astronomers have found some of the youngest stars ever seen thanks to the Herschel space observatory, a European Space Agency mission with important NASA contributions. Dense envelopes of gas and dust surround the fledging stars known as protostars, making their detection difficult until now. The discovery gives scientists a window into the earliest and least understood phases of star formation.
The new results come from the Herschel Orion Protostar Survey (HOPS), led by the University of Toledo. HOPS has looked at the vast stellar nursery in the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, the biggest site of star formation near our solar system, located in the constellation of Orion.
A portion of the survey is shown here in two side-by-side images of the same region around the nebula Messier 78 where several of 15 new protostars were found. Herschel detected the extremely young protostars — indicated in the image by the four circles — that were too cold to be picked up in previous scans of the area by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.
Of the 15 newly discovered protostars, 11 possess very red colors, meaning their light output trends toward the low-energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum. This output indicates the stars are still embedded deeply in a gaseous envelope, meaning they are very young. An additional seven protostars previously seen by Spitzer share this characteristic. Together, these 18 budding stars comprise only five percent of the protostars and candidate protostars observed in Orion. That figure implies the very youngest stars spend perhaps 25,000 years in this phase of their development, a mere blink of an eye considering a star like our sun lives for about 10 billion years.
Image credit: NASA/ESA/ESO/JPL-Caltech/Max-Planck Institute for Astronomy