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Millions of Stars Forming in Mysterious Cloud

Mar 20, 2015 04:25 PM EDT
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Cloud D
Pictured: A Hubble Space Telescope image of galaxy NGC 5253. The white spots are young star clusters. Superimposed is the gas (fuzzy red to yellow) as seen by the Submillimeter Array. The brightest part of the image is Cloud D.

(Photo : Jean Turner)

More than a million young stars are forming in a mysterious hot, dusty cloud of molecular gases in a tiny galaxy not too far away from our own, according to new research.

The star cluster can be found within a supernebula in a dwarf galaxy known as NGC 5253, in the constellation Centaurus. Interestingly, while the cluster boasts one billion times the luminosity of our Sun, it is actually invisible in ordinary light, hidden by its own hot gases.

"We are stardust, and this cluster is a factory of stars and soot," Jean Turner, who led the study, said in a statement. "We are seeing the dust that the stars have created. Normally when we look at a star cluster, the stars long ago dispersed all their gas and dust, but in this cluster, we see the dust."

The amount of dust surrounding the stars is extraordinary - approximately 15,000 times the mass of our Sun in elements such as carbon and oxygen.

Our own Milky Way galaxy hasn't formed gigantic star clusters for billions of years. It is still forming new stars, but not nearly on the same scale as this newly discovered cluster. Some astronomers had believed that such giant star clusters could form only in the early Universe.

For comparison, the NGC 5253 cluster is about 3 million years old, which in astronomical terms, is remarkably young. It is likely to live for more than a billion years, researchers say.

NGC 5253 has hundreds of large star clusters, but the most spectacular is found within Cloud D. It is turning gas into stars at a rate that's at least 10 times higher than what is seen in the Milky Way.

"We're catching this cluster at a special time," Turner said. "With a cluster this large, we would expect several thousand stars that would have become supernovae and exploded by now. We found no evidence of a supernova yet."

Though, the researchers do note that this could still happen in the future, and destroy this impressive, mysterious cloud entirely.

The findings were published in the journal Nature.

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