ANTOFAGASTA, Chile — One of the greatest firework displays ever seen has been captured by astronomers. A team with the European Southern Observatory says this cosmic event features the birth of new stars in nearby galaxies – amid blinding gas and dust clouds.
The spectacular pyrotechnics appear in images taken by telescopes both in Chile and space. They carry a wealth of information on the environments in which new stars form, shedding new light on the evolution these stars as well.
Co-lead author Professor Eric Emsellem of the ESO calls the stunning pictures an example of colorful cosmic fireworks.
“For the first time we are resolving individual units of star formation over a wide range of locations and environments in a sample that well represents the different types of galaxies,” Prof. Emsellem says in a media release.
“We can directly observe the gas that gives birth to stars, we see the young stars themselves, and we witness their evolution through various phases.”
Global effort to map the stars
The international team combined scans taken with the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT), Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), and NASA’s Hubble Telescope. Astronomers say illuminated and warm gas encircling “baby” stars acted as a “smoking gun” – enabling mapping of the cold clouds that provide the raw material.
Knowing where stars are forming will show what triggers, boosts, or holds back their birth. The resulting pictures are stunning and offer an amazing insight into nurseries in neighboring stellar “cities.”
“There are many mysteries we want to unravel,” adds co-author Dr. Kathryn Kreckel from the University of Heidelberg. “Are stars more often born in specific regions of their host galaxies – and, if so, why? And after stars are born how does their evolution influence the formation of new generations of stars?”
The PHANGS (Physics at High Angular resolution in Nearby GalaxieS) project can now answer these questions. The VLT instrument MUSE collects spectra, the “bar codes” that unveil the properties and nature of cosmic objects.
The instrument collected about 15 million from 30,000 nebulae, giant clouds of dust and gas. Meanwhile, ALMA watched roughly 100,000 cold gas regions across 90 galaxies, producing an unprecedentedly sharp atlas. Along with Hubble, they produced the most detailed analysis of its kind to date. The different wavelengths – visible, near-infrared, and radio – drew back the curtain on distinct parts of each galaxy.
“Their combination allows us to probe the various stages of stellar birth — from the formation of the stellar nurseries to the onset of star formation itself and the final destruction of the nurseries by the newly born stars — in more detail than is possible with individual observations,” explains co-author Dr. Francesco Belfiore of the Arcetri Observatory in Florence.
“PHANGS is the first time we have been able to assemble such a complete view, taking images sharp enough to see the individual clouds, stars, and nebulae that signify forming stars.”
New telescopes set to improve space exploration
Astronomers say they will continue to hone these observations using upcoming telescopes and instruments, such as NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The new images will also lay the groundwork for ESO’s ELT (Extremely Large Telescope) which will start operating by the end of the decade.
“As amazing as PHANGS is, the resolution of the maps that we produce is just sufficient to identify and separate individual star-forming clouds, but not good enough to see what’s happening inside them in detail,” adds principal investigator Dr. Eva Schinnerer from the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy.
“New observational efforts by our team and others are pushing the boundary in this direction, so we have decades of exciting discoveries ahead of us.”
SWNS writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.