Image: RCW 38
The central part of the stellar cluster RCW 38, around the young, massive star system IRS2, is seen in a color composite image.
By Staff writer
updated 8/19/2009 2:34:37 PM ET 2009-08-19T18:34:37

Most baby stars aren't born in gentle cosmic cradles, but rather in violent clouds full of powerful winds and blazing light. New images taken by the European Southern Observatory offer a peek into one of these chaotic birthing grounds.

The observations reveal stars budding amidst an onslaught of radiation from other nearby stars and ejected matter from supernova explosions of dying stars.

Researchers focused their attention on a cloud called RCW 38, located about 5,500 light-years away. In this dense collection of gas and dust, many stars are born, live and die.

In fact, scientists think our own sun and solar system likely formed in a cluster like this one, rather than a more sparse suburban region of the Milky Way.

"By looking at star clusters like RCW 38, we can learn a great deal about the origins of our solar system and others, as well as those stars and planets that have yet to come," said Kim DeRose, first author of a paper on the new study in the July issue of the Astronomical Journal. DeRose worked on the project when she was an undergraduate student at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass.

The new pictures are the sharpest images yet of RCW 38, taken with the NACO adaptive optics instrument on ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile. The photos reveal that the object called IRS2, which appeared to be a massive star in the center of the cloud, is actually two separate stars rotating each other in a binary system.

This system glows in searing white-blue light, the hottest range for stars. The strong radiation pouring out of IRS2 energizes and disperses nearby gas that might otherwise collapse into new stars, or that might form protoplanetary discs around developing stars. If not disrupted, these discs can eventually give rise to new solar systems with planets, moons and comets like our own.

The overbearing binary system in the center of the cloud doesn't seem to have trampled all nearby star formation. The researchers found a few protostars, which are faint infants on their way toward becoming full stars, in the field.

And in crowded clouds like RCW 38, supernova explosions are also common. These dying throes of massive stars scatter matter throughout the cloud, including heavy elements and rare isotopes of chemicals that then get swallowed up into other stars forming nearby. Detecting some of these isotopes in the sun is one way astronomers can tell our own origins trace back to a chaotic cradle like this.

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