Dying stars are famous for their explosive and radiant light shows, called supernovae, but newborn stars can also erupt into brilliant pyrotechnics.
A spectacular new image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals “a relatively rare celestial phenomenon,” known as a Herbig–Haro (HH) object, which captures a baby star shooting out luminous jets of hot gas,” according to a statement posted on Monday.
HH objects form in nebulous stellar nurseries filled with clouds of gas and dust from which stars are born. As these clouds condense into an increasingly active protostar, some of the material gets shot back out into space in narrow jets that travel hundreds of miles per second. The gas in these jets is ionized, meaning that it has become so hot that electrons are stripped from atoms, forming a super-charged stream.
When these searing jets slam into the cooler clouds surrounding a baby star, they generate bright bursts of light that can shine for tens of thousands of years, which is not that long in a cosmic context. HH objects are these transient events, and they can be difficult to spot despite their radiance. This is both because of their relative brevity and because their intense optical light is often blocked out by the nebular clouds surrounding them.
Hubble used its Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3) to photograph this particular object, known as HH 111, because this instrument can capture both optical and infrared light. As a result, WFC3 is able to make out details of the object in the infrared spectrum, which can penetrate through clouds and help to fully reveal the scale and majesty of the jets.
Located some 1,300 light years from Earth in the constellation Orion, HH 111 is fueled by a baby star that is only about one thousand years old. Thanks to Hubble, we can witness the astonishing stellar birth and the short-lived jets of light that have announced it to the universe.