As massive as our Sun is, it’s actually fairly small by star standards. Some massive stars are many times as large as our Sun, and they put out a great deal of energy in the form of heat and light before eventually exploding in a dramatic supernova. While we see evidence of the death of these massive stars in the form of bright supernova events, we still know relatively little about how they are born.
The rarity of massive stars is part of what makes them hard to study. “Massive stars like this represent less than one percent of all stars, but they can affect the formation of their stellar siblings,” Jim De Buizer, Universities Space Research Association senior scientist at the SOFIA Science Center, said in a statement. “Stars like our Sun have much quieter and humbler origins, and because there are so many of them, we understand their birth properties more thoroughly.”
Now a distant stellar nursery called W51 may hold clues to the formation of these stars. The giant celestial cloud, located almost 17,000 light-years away, is composed mostly of hydrogen, making it the ideal location for stars to form. The cloud is being investigated by the flying observatory SOFIA, which can image distant objects by flying above the water vapor in Earth’s atmosphere.
SOFIA captured this image of W51, showing massive stars right after their birth. Astronomers can trace the evolution of stars between generations, with younger stars near the center of the cloud and older stars toward the edges. One star in particular is truly huge, estimated to be the equivalent mass of 100 Suns, which would make it one of the most massive forming stars in our galaxy.
“This is the best resolution currently available using these wavelengths of infrared light,” Wanggi Lim, Universities Space Research Association scientist at the SOFIA Science Center, said in the same statement. “Not only does this reveal areas that we could not see before, but it’s critical to understanding the physical properties and relative age of the stars and their parental clouds.”