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A 'cosmic caterpillar,' shaped by fierce stellar winds [Photo]

August 30, 2013|By Deborah Netburn
  • A light-year-long knot of interstellar gas and dust looks like a caterpillar but is, in fact, a star just starting to form.
A light-year-long knot of interstellar gas and dust looks like a caterpillar… (NASA / ESA / the Hubble Heritage…)

What do you see in the ethereal photo above? An electric blue caterpillar? A wispy tadpole? How about a star struggling to be born?

The image, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows a star 4,500 light-years from Earth trying to form in the face of a powerful stellar wind.

The glowing white head of the caterpillar shape is the core of the protostar. This is where the nuclear process has just begun, allowing the dense collection of gas, plasma and dust to shine with its own light, explains Zolt Levay of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

In normal star formation, the core of the star would be surrounded by a sphere of gas and dust that would be pulled into it through gravity, helping it grow.

But what you see above is not a normal star formation. Instead, this protostar is trying to emerge in the midst of strong stellar winds and radiation coming from a cluster of 65 super-hot, super-bright stars 15 light-years away.

You cannot see these super-stars (known as O-type stars)  in this image, but if you could, they would be far off to the right, and they would be joined by 500 less bright, but still luminous, stars. Together these stars make up the Cygnus OB2 association, according to a Hubble news release.

The radiation and wind coming off this association is strong and is responsible for pushing our little protostar's gas off to the left. It is also causing it to glow.

New stars in this region usually grow to one to 10 times the size of our sun, but if our little caterpillar-shaped protostar can't fight off the stellar wind, it may wind up smaller in size, a Hubble spokesperson wrote in a release.  

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