The life of a large family of stars has been revealed in stunning detail by a technique that removes the blurring effects of Earth's atmosphere.
The young star cluster Trumpler 14 can be seen clearly in the new image taken by the adaptive optics system on the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope (VLT).
The snapshot represents the largest patch of sky yet to be imaged with adaptive optics. The technique counteracts interference from Earth's atmosphere by making swift, real-time changes in the shape of a telescope's mirror during observations.
At less than 1 million years old, Trumpler 14 is the youngest cluster of stars in the Carina Nebula (also noted for hosting Eta Carinae — one of the wildest and most massive stars in our galaxy). The large open cluster is located about 8,000 light-years away from Earth.
The high quality of the VLT image showed astronomers that not only is Trumpler 14 the youngest cluster in the nebula — with a newly refined age estimate of just 500,000 years — but also one of the most populous star clusters within the nebula.
The astronomers who observed the cluster counted about 2,000 stars in their image spanning the entirerange of stellar sizes, from less than one-tenth the mass of our sun up to a factor of several tens of times its mass. All of these stars are packed into a space just 6 light-years across — less than the distance between the sun and its nearest stellar neighbor.
The most prominent star in the cluster is the supergiant HD 93129A, one of the most luminous stars in the Milky Way galaxy. This titan has an estimated mass of about 80 times that of the sun and is approximately 2.5 million times brighter. It is part of a stellar pair— or binary star— with another bright, massive star.
Astronomers expect the adaptive optics technique used to make the Trumpler 14 image will be crucial to the next generation of large telescopes.