In this new view of a vast star-forming cloud called W3, the Herschel space observatory tells the story of how massive stars are born. Herschel is a European Space Agency mission with important NASA contributions.
W3 is a giant gas cloud containing an enormous stellar nursery, some 6,200 light-years away in the Perseus Arm, one of our Milky Way galaxy’s main spiral arms.
By studying regions of massive star formation in W3, scientists have made progress in solving one of the major conundrums in the birth of massive stars. That is, even during their formation, the radiation blasting away from these stars is so powerful that they should push away the very material from which they feed. If this is the case, how can massive stars form at all?
Observations of W3 point toward a possible solution: in these very dense regions, there appears to be a continuous process by which the raw material is moved around, compressed and confined, under the influence of clusters of young, massive stars called protostars.
Through their strong radiation and powerful winds, populations of young, high-mass stars may well be able to build and maintain localized clumps of material from which they can continue to feed during their earliest and most chaotic years, despite their incredible energy output.
The W3 star-formation complex is one of the largest in the outer Milky Way, hosting the formation of both low- and high-mass stars. The distinction between low- and high-mass stars is drawn at eight times the mass of our own sun: above this limit, stars end their lives as supernovas.
Dense, bright blue knots of hot dust marking massive star formation dominate the upper left of the image. Intense radiation streaming away from the stellar infants heats up the surrounding dust and gas, making it shine brightly in Herschel’s infrared-sensitive eyes.
Older high-mass stars are also seen to be heating up dust in their environments, appearing as the blue regions, for example, lower down and to the left.
Extensive networks of much colder gas and dust weave through the scene in the form of red filaments and pillar-like structures. Several of these cold cores conceal low-mass star formation, hinted at by tiny yellow knots of emission.
Herschel is a European Space Agency mission, with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes and with important participation by NASA. NASA’s Herschel Project Office is based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel’s three science instruments. The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of the Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, supports the United States astronomical community. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.