Herschel Spots Ring of Strange, Dusty Material and Baby Stars in Stellar Nursery

First Posted: Jun 16, 2014 12:27 PM EDT

The Herschel Space Observatory has spotted a ring of dusty material while capturing one of the sharpest scans to date of a distant cloud of gas and dust, called NGC 7538. The latest findings reveal clumps of material that could eventually develop into the most powerful kinds of stars in the universe.

NGC 7538 is located about 8,800 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cepheus. This cloud, which has a mass that's equivalent to that of 400,000 suns, is currently undergoing an intense bout of star formation as a stellar nursery. That's why astronomers decided to take a closer look at this cloud to find out how stars come into being. Yet during their observations, they also discovered a cool, dusty ring in the shape of an oval.

"We have looked at NGC 7538 with Herschel and identified 13 massive, dense clumps where colossal stars could form in the future," said Cassandra Fallscheer, one of the researchers, in a news release. "In addition, we have found a gigantic ring structure and the weird thing is, we're not at all sure what created it."

The ring itself possesses the mass of about 500 suns. Astronomers often see ring and bubble-like structures in cosmic dust clouds. In fact, the strong winds cast out by the most massive stars, called O-type stars, can generate these expanding puffs, as can their explosive deaths. Yet astronomers have yet to find any energetic source or remnant of a deceased O-type star within the center of this ring.

"Further research to determine the mechanism responsible for creating the ring structure is necessary," said Fallscheer in a news release.

That said, the astronomers did learn a bit more about the budding, new O-type stars within the cosmic cloud. In all, they identified 13 clumps of material that could turn into new stars. The findings reveal a bit more about stellar nurseries and pave the way for future studies.

The findings are published in The Astrophysical Journal.

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