Pic of the Week: Stellar Birth in NGC 1333

Image (Credit): NGC 1333 as captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA, ESA, STScI)

This week’s image is from the Hubble Space Telescope. It captures the colorful, star-filled NGC 1333, which is about 960 light-years away. Quite a lot is going on in this image – both seen and unseen.

This explanations from the European Space Agency (ESA) will hopefully answer many of your questions regarding this image:

Hubble’s colourful view, showcasing its unique capability to obtain images in light from ultraviolet to near-infrared, unveils an effervescent cauldron of glowing gases and pitch-black dust stirred up and blown around by several hundred newly forming stars embedded within the dark cloud. Even then, Hubble just scratches the surface; most of the star-birthing firestorm is hidden behind clouds of fine dust — essentially soot — that are thicker toward the bottom of the image. The black areas of the image are not empty space, but are filled with obscuring dust.

To capture this image, Hubble peered through a veil of dust on the edge of a giant cloud of cold molecular hydrogen — the raw material for fabricating new stars and planets under the relentless pull of gravity. The image underscores the fact that star formation is a messy process in a rambunctious Universe.

Ferocious stellar winds, likely from the bright blue star at the top of the image, are blowing through a curtain of dust. The fine dust scatters the starlight at blue wavelengths.

Farther down, another bright super-hot star shines through filaments of obscuring dust, looking like the Sun shining through scattered clouds. A diagonal string of fainter accompanying stars looks reddish because the dust is filtering their starlight, allowing more of the red light to get through.

The bottom of the picture presents a keyhole peek deep into the dark nebula. Hubble captures the reddish glow of ionised hydrogen. It looks like the finale of a fireworks display, with several overlapping events. This is caused by pencil-thin jets shooting out from newly forming stars outside the frame of view. These stars are surrounded by circumstellar discs, which may eventually produce planetary systems, and powerful magnetic fields that direct two parallel beams of hot gas deep into space, like a double lightsaber from science fiction films. They sculpt patterns on the hydrogen cocoon, like laser lightshow tracings. The jets are a star’s birth announcement.

This view offers an example of the time when our own Sun and planets formed inside such a dusty molecular cloud, 4.6 billion years ago. Our Sun didn’t form in isolation but was instead embedded inside a mosh pit of frantic stellar birth, perhaps even more energetic and massive than NGC 1333.