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Nursery of Giants Captured in New Spitzer Image
04.13.04
 
Typically, the bigger something is the easier it is to find. Elephants, for example, are not hard to spot. But when it comes to the massive stars making up the stellar nursery called DR21, size does not add up to visibility. These elephant stars are invisible.

Spitzer image of DR21

Image above: Using infrared technology, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope reveals a stellar nursery called DR21. + Click for full image. Image coutesy: NASA/JPL/Caltech.

How can something so big go undetected? The answer is dust. DR21 is shrouded in so much space dust that no visible light escapes it. By seeing in the infrared, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has managed to pull this veil aside.

The new observations reveal a firework-like display of massive stars surrounded by a stormy cloud of gas and dust. The biggest star is estimated to be 100,000 times as bright as our own Sun.

The image is available online at http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu.

"We've never seen anything like this before," said Dr. William Reach, an investigator for the latest observations and an astronomer at the Spitzer Science Center, located at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, Calif. "The massive stars are ripping the cloud of gas and dust around them to shreds." The principal investigator is Dr. Anthony Marston, a former Spitzer astronomer now at the European Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands.

Located about 10,000 light-years away in the Cygnus constellation of our Milky Way galaxy, DR21 is a dusty and turbulent nest of giant newborn stars. Previous images taken with radio and near-infrared bands of light reveal a powerful jet emanating from a huge, nebulous cloud. But these views are just the tip of the iceberg.

Spitzer's highly sensitive infrared detectors were able to see past the obscuring dust to the hotbed of star birth behind. The new false-color image spans a vast expanse of space, with DR21 at the top center. Within DR21, a dense knot of massive stars is enveloped by a wispy cloud of gas and dust. Red filaments containing organic compounds called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons stretch horizontally and vertically across this cloud. A green jet of gas from the region's biggest star can be seen shooting downward past the bulge of stars.

Below DR21 are distinct pockets of star formation, never captured in full detail before. The large swirling cloud to the lower left is thought to be a stellar nursery like DR21's, but with smaller stars. A bubble possibly formed by a past generation of stars is visible within the lower rim of this cloud.

The new view testifies to the ability of massive newborn stars to destroy the cloud that blankets them. Astronomers plan to use these observations to determine precisely how such a energetic event occurs.

Launched 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, Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Additional information about the Spitzer Space Telescope is available at http://www.spitzer.caltech.edu .

 
 
Whitney Clavin NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory