Whole Life Cycle of Stars Revealed in New Image

WASHINGTON ? Recycled piles of stardust ? andthe stars that suck them up and spit them out ? have been revealed in a newimage of a dwarf galaxy near our own Milky Way.

The image,taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, shows the Small Magellanic Cloud and givesastronomers an opportunity to study the entire life cycle of stars up close, aswell as the different environments in which stars form. It was unveiled heretoday at the 215th meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

"It'squite a treasure trove," said Karl Gordon, the principal investigator ofthe latest Spitzerobservations at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md."Because this galaxy is so close and relatively large, we can study allthe various stages and facets of how stars form in one environment."

The SmallMagellanic Cloud and its larger sister, the Large Magellanic Cloud areso-called dwarf galaxies and are visible to observers from Earth's southernhemisphere. The Small Magellanic Cloud is the farther away of the two at200,000 light-years away. (A light-year is the distance that light travels inone year, about 6 trillion miles.)

Recentresearch has shown that the galactic pair is not orbiting the Milky Way, as waspreviously thought, but is instead justpassing through the neighborhood. Both galaxies are less evolved than ourown, and have bursts of new star formation that were triggered by interactionwith the Milky Way, as well as with each other.

The imagereveals the galaxy's youngest stars (appearing in red) embedded in thick dust,as well as the older stars (in blue) that eject that dust.

"WithSpitzer, we are pinpointing how to best calculate the numbers of new stars thatare forming right now," Gordon said. "Observations in the infraredgive us a view into the birthplace of stars, unveiling the dust-enshroudedlocations where stars have just formed."

Studyingthe Small Magellanic Cloud is also useful to astronomers because it is thoughtto be similar to the young galaxies that populated the universe billions of yearsago.

The newimage was taken before Spitzer ran out of its liquid coolant in May 2009 andbegan its so-called "WarmMission."

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Andrea Thompson

Andrea Thompson is an associate editor at Scientific American, where she covers sustainability, energy and the environment. Prior to that, she was a senior writer covering climate science at Climate Central and a reporter and editor at Live Science, where she primarily covered Earth science and the environment. She holds a graduate degree in science health and environmental reporting from New York University, as well as a bachelor of science and and masters of science in atmospheric chemistry from the Georgia Institute of Technology.