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Researchers Get First Clear View Into Boiling Cauldron Where Stars Are Born

By Kimbra Cutlip

University of Maryland researchers have created the first high-resolution image of an expanding bubble of hot plasma and ionized gas where new stars ignite. Previous low-resolution images did not clearly show the bubble or reveal how it expanded into the surrounding gas.

The researchers used data from NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) telescope to analyze one of the brightest, most massive star-forming regions in the Milky Way galaxy. Their analysis showed that a single, expanding bubble of warm gas surrounds the Westerlund 2 star cluster and disproved earlier studies suggesting that two bubbles surround it. In results published yesterday in The Astrophysical Journal, the researchers also identified the source of the bubble and the energy driving its expansion.

“When massive stars form, they blow off much stronger ejections of protons, electrons and atoms of heavy metal, compared to our sun,” said Maitraiyee Tiwari, a postdoctoral associate in the Department of Astronomy and lead author of the study. “These ejections are called stellar winds, and extreme stellar winds are capable of blowing and shaping bubbles in the surrounding clouds of cold, dense gas. We observed just such a bubble centered around the brightest cluster of stars in this region of the galaxy, and we were able to measure its radius, mass and the speed at which it is expanding.”

Read the full release on the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences website.

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