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Light Echoes From a Red Supergiant

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This Hubble Space Telescope image of the star V838 Monocerotis reveals dramatic changes in the illumination of surrounding dusty cloud structures. The effect, called a light echo, unveiled never-before-seen dust patterns when the star suddenly brightened for several weeks in early 2002.

A light echo is light from a stellar explosion echoing off dust surrounding the star that produces enough energy in a brief flash to illuminate surrounding dust. The star presumably ejected the illuminated dust shells in previous outbursts. Light from the latest outburst travels to the dust and then is reflected to Earth.

The phenomena is similar to that of a nova. A typical nova is a normal star that dumps hydrogen onto a compact white-dwarf companion star. The hydrogen piles up until it spontaneously explodes by nuclear fusion -- like a titanic hydrogen bomb -- exposing a searing stellar core with a temperature of hundreds of thousands of degrees Fahrenheit.

By contrast, V838 Monocerotis did not expel its outer layers. Instead, it grew enormously in size. Its surface temperature dropped to temperatures that were not much hotter than a light bulb. This behavior of ballooning to an immense size, but not losing its outer layers, is very unusual and completely unlike an ordinary nova explosion. The outburst may represent a transitory stage in a star's evolution that is rarely seen. The star has some similarities to highly unstable aging stars called eruptive variables, which suddenly and unpredictably increase in brightness.

V838 Monocerotis is located about 20,000 light-years away from Earth in the direction of the constellation Monoceros, placing the star at the outer edge of our Milky Way galaxy.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team

 

Trifid Nebula

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The Trifid Nebula, aka M20, is easy to find with a small telescope and a well-known stop in the nebula rich constellation Sagittarius. But where visible light pictures show the nebula divided into three parts by dark, obscuring dust lanes, this penetrating infrared image reveals filaments of luminous gas and newborn stars.

This spectacular false-color view is courtesy of the Spitzer Space Telescope. Astronomers have used the Spitzer infrared image data to count newborn and embryonic stars that otherwise lie hidden in the natal dust and glowing clouds of this intriguing stellar nursery.

Image credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, J. Rho (SSC/Caltech)

 

Windblown

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A fast and powerful wind from a hot young star created this stunning bubble-shaped nebula, poised on the end of a bright filament of hydrogen gas. Cataloged as N44F, the cosmic windblown bubble is seen at the left of this Hubble Space Telescope image. N44F lies along the northern outskirts of the N44 complex of emission nebulae in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a mere 160,000 light-years away.

The bright, blue, hot star itself is just below the center of the bubble. Peering into the bubble's interior, the Hubble image reveals dramatic structures, including pillars of dust, aligned toward N44F's hot central star. Reminiscent of dust pillars in stellar nurseries within our Milky Way galaxy, they likely contain young stars at their tips. Expanding into the surrounding gas and dust at about 12 kilometers, or 7.5 miles, per second, N44F is around 35 light-years across.

Image credit: NASA/GSFC/MITI/ERSDAC/JAROS,

 

Star Crossed

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How massive can a star be? Estimates made from distance, brightness and standard solar models have accorded one star in the open cluster Pismis 24 over 200 times the mass of our sun. This star is the brightest object located just to the right of the gas front in the above image.

Close inspection of images taken recently with the Hubble Space Telescope, however, have shown that Pismis 24-1 derives its brilliant luminosity not from a single star but from three at least. Component stars would still remain near 100 solar masses, making them among the more massive stars currently on record. Toward the image left, stars are still forming in the associated emission nebula NGC 6357, including several that appear to be breaking out and illuminating a spectacular cocoon.

Image credit: NASA, ESA and J. M. Apellániz (IAA, Spain)
 

Dusty Stellar Nursery Revealed

 

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How can something as big as a star go undetected? The answer is dust. Stellar nursery DR21 is shrouded in so much space dust that no visible light escapes it. By seeing in the infrared, NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope pulls this veil aside. The new observations reveal a firework-like display of massive stars surrounded by a stormy cloud of gas and dust. The biggest star is estimated to be 100,000 times as bright as our own sun.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech

 

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