Feature

Text Size

One Star's Death Means Life for Many
03.08.04
 
For stars, life can begin with a death. When a massive, dying star explodes, or "goes supernova," it releases shock waves that can sometimes trigger the birth of a new generation of stars.

a star-forming nebula called Henize 206 Image right: The nebula called Henize 206. + Click for Larger Image. Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One such stellar family, a star-forming nebula called Henize 206, has been captured in superb detail in a new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The nebula, its stars and the remnants of the blast that created it can be seen in this unique portrait of life and death in the universe.

"The image is a wonderful example of the cycle of birth and death that gives rise to stars throughout the universe," said Dr. Varoujan Gorjian, a scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., and principal investigator for the latest observation.

Henize 206 sits just outside our own Milky Way galaxy, in a satellite galaxy 163,000 light-years away called the Large Magellanic Cloud. This stellar nursery is home to hundreds and possibly thousands of young stars, ranging in age from 2-million to 10-million years old.

As in other star-forming nebulas, the stars here arose when a supernova explosion sent shock waves through surrounding clouds of gas and dust. The gas and dust were subsequently compressed, gravity kicked in and stars were born. Eventually, some of these stars will also die in a fiery blast, triggering another cycle of birth and death. This recycling of stellar dust and gas occurs across the universe. Our own Sun descended from multiple generations of stars.

The new Spitzer picture provides a detailed snapshot of this universal phenomenon. By imaging Henize 206 in the infrared, Spitzer was able to see through blankets of dust that dominate visible light views. The resulting false-color image shows embedded young stars as bright white spots, and surrounding gas and dust in blue, green and red. Also revealed is a ring of gas, colored green, which is the wake of the ancient supernova's explosion.

"Before Spitzer, we were only seeing tantalizing hints of the newborn stars peeking through shrouds of dust," said Gorjian.

These observations provide astronomers with a laboratory for understanding not only stellar cycles of birth and death but also the early universe. Unlike large galaxies, the small Large Magellanic Cloud has a quirk: the gas that permeates it contains roughly 20 to 50 percent of the heavier elements, such as iron, possessed by the Sun and gas clouds in the Milky Way. This low-metallicity state approximates that of the early universe, allowing astronomers to catch a glimpse of what stellar life was like billions of years ago when heavy metals were scarce.

Henize 206 was first catalogued in the early 1950s by Dr. Karl Henize (pronounced Hen-eyes), an astronomer who became a NASA astronaut and flew aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1985. He died while climbing Mount Everest in 1993 at the age of 66.

Launched on August 25, 2003, from Cape Canaveral, Florida, the Spitzer Space Telescope is the fourth of NASA's Great Observatories, a program that also includes the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-ray Observatory and Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. JPL manages the Spitzer Space Telescope mission for NASA's Office of Space Science, Washington. Science operations are conducted at the Spitzer Science Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. JPL is a division of Caltech.

Photos, videos, and additional information about the Spitzer Space Telescope are available at:

http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu.


High Resolution Photos are available at:

http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/index.html.


 
 
NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory