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Astronomers photograph a baby star

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
January 17th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Astronomers have photographed an infant star, likely less than one million years old. This rare find shows astronomers what a stellar birth looks like, as it occurs. The image was released this week after being taken by the European Southern Observatory in Chile.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Stars live very long lives, at least by human standards. The shortest-lived ones burn for less than ten million years while others with greater longevity can last for billions of years. The sun, for example, is approximately in the middle of its 10-billion year lifespan.

Astronomers know how stars form and what makes them start up. Seeing this in action however, is a rare sight because like a babe in the womb, they form inside a protective nursery.

Throughout space are vast clouds of dust and gas, composed mostly of hydrogen and a mix of heavier elements cast off from older, now deceased stars. These clouds can be billions of times larger than our own solar system and are visible to astronomers as nebulae. Within these clouds, or as astronomers call them, nebula, dust, and gas coalesces into lumps which swirl together and grow larger over time.

Eventually, these swirling balls of hydrogen gas become incredibly large and massive. So massive in fact, that the intense pressure in their cores causes hydrogen atoms to fuse together and release energy in the form of heat and light. This is the fundamental process that makes stars shine.

However, when stars ignite for the first time, they are shrouded in the dust and gas that formed them. Scientists refer to the regions as "stellar nurseries." When the star begins to shine, its stellar wind, the stream of charged particles that flows into space along with its light and heat, literally blows away the cloud of dust surrounding it. Eventually, the star emerges from its nursery and can be seen for light years around.

What makes the image shown above so remarkable is that it appears to show a star just as it is emerging from its nursery.

The star shines brightly with a distinct blue-white color, which is the color of all newborn stars, which burn the hottest when they are young.

The star is in the nebula known as Lupus 3, some 600 light-years away in the constellation Scorpio (the scorpion). While it cannot be seen by the naked eye, it is visible in telescopes.

Stars are typically born in groups, with hundreds, or even thousands born within a few million years of one another, within the same cloud. Eventually, they migrate outwards wafting into space on the tendrils of gravity which radiate through the galaxy.

Our sun was formed in this same way, and is now so far from its parent nebula that scientists do not know precisely where it formed.

The latest image gives astronomers a rare glimpse at a baby star, new from its stellar womb.

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