If you love thought-provoking images of real space objects, then you'll love this one. It's a Hubble Space Telescope snapshot, combined with ground-based H-alpha observations taken with the Isaac Newton Telescope, of a protostar. Cataloged as IRAS 20324+4057, it is located 500 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus. While it looks like good-humored caterpillar from a childhood fairytale, this light-year-long clump of interstellar gas isn't a peaceful, playtime pal. Near this trunk of gas and dust lurk incredibly bright stars which are blasting out ultraviolet radiation at the "wanna-be" star and transforming it into this fanciful form.
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), and the IPHAS Survey
The protostar - IRAS 20324+4057 - shows itself as a knot. In real life, it's a star seen in the very first of its evolutionary stage. Inside the gaseous womb, it is gathering material and trying to grow. However, it's being stopped by 65 of the hottest and brightest stars known - the O-types. Even though they are 15 light years away from the "baby," their eroding radiation is tearing apart its gas crib. If they continue, this burgeoning star, which might eventually be one to 10 times the size of our Sun, will have a stunted growth.
But, don't feel bad for the little guy. There are still 500 less bright, but highly luminous B-type stars here. Together they make up a region known as the Cygnus OB2 association - a region of sky which spans nearly two degrees and is the closest of its type. If you were to put all of the stars in this area together, they would have a mass of more than 30,000 times that of our Sun! Yet there's even more... The entire association is lodged inside an even a broader area of star formation known as Cygnus X, which is one of the most luminous objects in the sky at radio wavelengths.
"Several OB stars in the Cygnus OB2 association are among the strongest stellar X-ray and radio sources in the Galaxy. The radio emission is particularly unusual, displaying a high level of variability and nonthermal behavior," says astronomer Wayne Waldron." For more than 15 years, the observed X-ray and nonthermal radio emission from OB stars has eluded explanation."
According to spectroscopic observations, the central star located in IRAS 20324+4057 hasn't lost its appetite. It is still quite busy taking on dust and gas... growing happily like any young star should. Although we don't know what may become of it in millions of years, it could eventually become a "heavy-weight" champ like NML Cygni, a red hypergiant star and the largest star currently known. It, too, makes its home in the Cygnus OB2 association. From little caterpillars to huge butterflies? You bet. NML Cygni is so large that if it were put in our solar system, it would extend not only beyond the orbit of Jupiter, but halfway between the orbit of Jupiter and Saturn! How much mass? It would take 4.5 billion Suns to fill a star its size.
Just don't "bug" them while they're eating!
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About Tammy Plotner - Tammy is a professional astronomy author, President Emeritus of Warren Rupp Observatory and retired Astronomical League Executive Secretary. She's received a vast number of astronomy achievement and observing awards, including the Great Lakes Astronomy Achievement Award, RG Wright Service Award and the first woman astronomer to achieve Comet Hunter's Gold Status.