NASA’s venerable space telescope has spotted stars and gas spiraling toward the core of a massive, oddly shaped stellar nursery in the nearby Small Magellanic Cloud.
Astronomers believe that the outer arm of this spiral of stars and the gas could provide a river-like flow of gas that fuels star formation in the stellar nursery, called NGC 346, seen in the recently released image captured by the The Hubble Space Telescope. The discovery could provide important clues to how stars were born when the 13.8 billion years galaxy was only a few billion years old and was undergoing a stellar “baby boom” of intense star formation.
“Stars are the machines that sculpt the universe. We wouldn’t have life without stars, and yet we don’t fully understand how they form,” said Elena Sabbi, study leader and astronomer at Space. Baltimore’s Telescope Science Institute, which operates Hubble, said in a statement.
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“We have multiple models making predictions, and some of those predictions are contradictory,” she added. “We want to figure out what regulates the process of star formation because those are the laws we need to understand what we see in the early universe as well.”
NGC 346 is only 150 years old light–years in diameter and contains stellar material with a mass equivalent to 50,000 suns. The region has baffled astronomers with its intense star formation rate.
The Small Magellanic Cloud home to NGC 346 is located just 200,000 light-years from Earth, meaning astronomers are seeing younger light than that of more distant galaxies that may reveal the beginning universe. However, the dwarf galaxy is analogous to early galaxies in other respects.
The Small Magellanic Cloud has a simpler chemical composition than the Milky Way, much like the first galaxies that had not yet been enriched with heavier elements by successive generations of stars that went supernova, exploding and seeding space with elements they forged during their lifetimes. Because of this chemical simplicity, stars in the Small Magellanic Cloud are hotter and burn fuel faster than stars in the Milky Way, which means they age faster than stars in our galaxy.
Yet despite these differences, the researchers found that star formation in the Small Magellanic Cloud proceeds in much the same way as in the Milky Way.
Look at a spiral of stars
To study star formation in the Small Magellanic Cloud, astronomers turned to the Hubble Space Telescope and the very large telescope (VLT) in northern Chile to examine star motion in two distinct ways.
Sabbi and his team used Hubble to measure changes in the position of stars in the galaxy over 11 years. Stars move at a speed of around 2,000 mph (3,200 km/h), which means that in 11 years they move around 200 million miles (320 million km), a little more than twice the distance between the Earth and the sun.
But that’s still a small distance seen from our perch at 150 light-years, meaning it took the power of Hubble to spot and resolve these tiny shifts in star position.
Meanwhile, a second team of astronomers led by European Space Agency (ESA) researcher Peter Zeidler used the VLT’s Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer (MUSE) instrument to measure the radial velocity of stars, the velocity at which a star is moving towards or away from the observer. .
Both methods of observation revealed a spiral of stars feeding into the core of NGC 346, carrying with them gas for star formation.
“What was really amazing was that we used two completely different methods with different setups and basically came to the same conclusion independently,” Zeidler said in the same statement. “With Hubble you can see the stars, but with MUSE we can also see the movement of gas in the third dimension, and that supports the theory that everything is spiraling inward.”
Zeidler also explained the importance of spiral formation for star birth.
“A spiral is a very good natural way to fuel star formation from the outside towards the center of the cluster,” he explained. “It’s the most efficient way for stars and gas that fuels more star formation to move toward the center.”
The team’s research was published Thursday, September 8 in The Astrophysical Journal.
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