Sunday, 1 February 2015

Where stars form

Yesterday we were treated to a stunning image on the Astronomy Picture of the Day website, which showed off one of the regions in our galaxy where stars are in the process of forming. The image is shown below in infrared light, using data from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.

The W33 star forming region as seen in infrared light (Credit: NASA / Spitzer Space Telescope)

This region is called W33, so called because it was the 33rd object catalogued by Gart Westerhout in his survey of radio sources in our Galaxy. Many of the sources catalogued by Westerhout are regions in which stars are forming, such as this one.

Astronomers refer to these regions as massive star forming regions, not just because they are massive (this image is about 100 light years wide!), but also because they are the sites where massive stars are forming. Massive stars are the hottest and most luminous stars that exist, and they play an important role in how a galaxy evolves thanks to their luminosity, the strong winds that emanate from their surfaces, and the supernova explosions in which they end their lives.

For these reasons, and because of their short lives and inherent rarity, massive stars are important objects to study. Furthermore astronomers aren't entirely sure how they form, so regions such as this where massive stars are known to be forming, are important to study.

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