Astronomers from the University of Florida will take a second look this summer at a rare cosmic cradle for the universe's largest stars, the constellation Carina. The massive gas cloud is located 8,000 light years away in the Southern sky and is home to stars that grow up to have 50 times the sun's mass.
The constellation was once part of the larger constellation Argo Navis until it split into three. The cloud is in the early stages of collapsing in on itself, offering astronomers an unusual vista on the first contractions of behemoth star birth.
Although our sun has far less mass than the incipient stars in the gas cloud, studying their formation could help astronomers understand how our solar system formed. That is because many stars the size of our sun are thought to have formed in clusters that dispersed into space over millions of years. It's possible that our sun traces its origin to such a cluster, and in fact chemical anomalies on meteorites suggest that's the case.
This is a mid-infrared image of a giant cloud obtained by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. The yellowish wisps to the right are remnants of gas that have been heated and are being driven off by the massive young stars within them, seen in blue. The large-scale collapse of colder gas to form a massive cluster is centered around the bright stars just to the left of the heated wisps.
(photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
These findings have spurred the team to plan a closer look with another Australian telescope in August. The team will also use the Gemini South telescope, equipped with a mid-infrared camera designed and built at the University of Florida, to observe the cloud from the telescope's location in Chile.
Stars at least 10 times the mass of our sun are rare, comprising only about 4 percent of those in the universe. Most are also at least 1,000 light years away and hard to study. It's exceptionally rare for astronomers to encounter clouds of gas and dust early in the process of collapsing into large stars because the stars tend to destroy their natal origins.
The astronomers discovered the gas cloud as part of a survey of 300 large gas clouds using the Australia Telescope National Facility's 22-meter Mopra radio telescope in southeastern Australia. The telescope's spectrometer allows astronomers to identify and image carbon monoxide and other molecules in large gas clouds. Even with that technology, the mega star birthing cloud was the only one of its kind among the 300 surveyed.
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