Stellar Family Tree
Generations of stars can be seen in this infrared portrait from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. In this wispy star-forming region, called W5, the oldest stars can be seen as blue dots in the centers of the two hollow cavities. (Other blue dots are background and foreground stars not associated with the region.) Younger stars line the rims of the cavities, and some can be seen as dots at the tips of the elephant-trunk-like pillars. The white knotty areas are where the youngest stars are forming.
W5 spans an area of sky equivalent to four full moons and is about 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. The Spitzer picture was taken over a period of 24 hours.
Like other massive star-forming regions, such as Orion and Carina, W5 contains large cavities that were carved out by radiation and winds from the region's most massive stars. According to the theory of triggered star-formation, the carving out of these cavities pushes gas together, causing it to ignite into successive generations of new stars.
This image contains some of the best evidence yet for the triggered star-formation theory. Scientists analyzing the photo have been able to show that the ages of the stars become progressively and systematically younger with distance from the center of the cavities.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA