Big Squeeze Creates New Stars in Cosmic Cloud
This composite image, combining data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope shows the molecular cloud Cepheus B, located in our Galaxy about 2,400 light years from the Earth.
Credit: X-ray (NASA/CXC/PSU/K. Getman et al.); IR (NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA/J. Wang et al.)

New photos of a cosmic cloud rich with young stars offer tantalizing clues about how those stars came to be.

Scientists recently combined images from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope to zoom in on the cosmic cloud Cepheus B, located in our galaxy about 2,400 light years from Earth.

This cloud of mostly hydrogen gas and dust contains a host of bright young stars whose birth could have been triggered by a nearby massive star outside the cloud. This star, called HD 217086, is bombarding the region with strong radiation. While this energetic flow is likely to have evaporated the cloud's outer layers, it also could have pushed a compression wave into the cloud that may have driven star formation by increasing the density of gas in the cloud's interior.

The new observations, which help astronomers estimate the ages of many of the young stars, support this model of star formation.

In the inner layer of Cepheus B, the scientists found most of the stars are about 1 million years old, and about 70 or 80 percent of them have "protoplanetary disks" of matter expected to be on their way to forming planets - another sign of a young star. In the middle and outer layers of the cloud, stars are older (between 2 million to 5 million years old) and much less likely to have protoplanetary disks.

If the massive star outside Cepheus B really did trigger star formation inside the cloud, scientists would expect just such an increase in stars' ages moving farther away from the center of the cloud. The newborn stars resulting from the hot star's compression wave would be located in the cloud's center, but only aged stars would be likely near the outskirts, where the compression wave passed long ago and the big star's strong radiation has squashed more recent star formation.

This trigger mechanism is just one example of how stars can come to be. In other situations, stars commonly arise when gas cools and condenses under its own gravity.

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