A powerful telescope has captured the rainbow-colored remains of an ancient star birth.
Astronomers in northern Chile gathered images of an explosive beginning in the Orion Molecular Cloud 1 (OMC-1), an active star factory that lies about 1,500 light-years from Earth, just behind the Orion Nebula.
This story began around 100,000 years ago, when two adolescent protostars (very young stars) grew increasingly angsty about being stuck in their stellar nursery.
The siblings latched onto each other gravitationally and gradually drew closer, until eventually, they either grazed each other or collided, astronomers said in a paper published last week in the Astrophysical Journal.
The collision triggered a powerful eruption that blast apart the stellar nursery and released as much energy as our sun emits over the course of 10 million years. Other nearby protostars and hundreds of streamers of gas and dust launched into interstellar space at speeds greater than 93 miles per second.
Five hundred years later, the remains of this violent star formation are still visible from Earth — at least when viewed through the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile’s Atacama desert.
“What we see in this once calm stellar nursery is a cosmic version of a Fourth of July fireworks display, with giant streamers rocketing off in all directions,” John Bally, the paper’s lead author and a professor at the University of Colorado, said in a news release.
The colors in the ALMA images represent a relative change in the waves (via the Doppler effect) of light emitted by carbon monoxide gas.
Astronomers had previously captured hints of this explosive scene in 2009 using the Submillimeter Array in Hawaii. But Bally said the new ALMA data provides much greater clarity than earlier images, and it reveals important clues about the high-velocity motion and distribution of carbon monoxide gas inside the streamers.
“People most often associate stellar explosions with ancient stars, like a nova eruption on the surface of a decaying star or the even more spectacular supernova death of an extremely massive star,” he said in the release.
“ALMA has given us new insights into explosions on the other end of the stellar life cycle, star birth.”