New star cluster images captured by SOFIA observatory

This mid-infrared image of the W3A star cluster in the inset was captured by the FORCAST camera on the SOFIA flying observatory. It is overlaid on a near-infrared image of the W3 star-forming region from the Spitzer space telescope.

PALMDALE – NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) researchers have captured new images of a recently born cluster of massive stars named W3A.

The cluster is seen lurking in the depths of the large gas and dust cloud from which it formed. The larger image shows the overall structure of the W3 region, lying 6,400 light years away in the direction of the constellation Perseus, as seen at near-infrared wavelengths by the Spitzer Space Telescope. The inset image composed of data obtained by SOFIA at mid-infrared wavelengths zooms in on the violent interaction zone around the massive star cluster.

The energetic radiation and strong winds from these stars will eventually shred and disperse their birth cloud, possibly triggering the formation of more stars in adjacent clouds. Astronomers using SOFIA aim to better understand the effects the largest stars in the cloud have on their smaller siblings and on the cycle of star birth.

The SOFIA observations were made using the Faint Object Infrared Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST).

The SOFIA observations reveal the presence of some 15 massive stars in various stages of their birth process. Toward the left of the inset image, a small bubble designated by the arrow has been cleared out of the gas and dust by the most massive star in this cluster. This bubble is surrounded by a dense shell of material shown in green in which some of the dust and all of the large molecules have been destroyed. That shell is surrounded by mostly untouched cloud material, traced by the red emission from cooler dust. Astronomers have evidence that the expansion of such bubbles around massive newly born stars acts to compress nearby material and trigger the condensation of more stars.

SOFIA is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and is based and managed at NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale.

(Information via press release from NASA Dryden Flight Research Center.)