Astronomers made this discovery using NASA's infrared Spitzer Space Telescope, which they trained on the Carina Nebula. Located some 10,000 light-years from Earth, the nebula houses what was once the second brightest star in the sky, Eta Carinae. Visible-light images of this stellar neighborhood had documented the existence of cloudy pillars of dust pointing toward Eta Carinae. Spitzer peered through the dust and found the pillars teeming with developing stars of different ages and masses. The researchers believe that when mammoth stars such as Eta Carinae are born, they quickly begin to tear apart the cloud that sustained them by way of the ultraviolet radiation and wind they produce. This destruction forces gas and dust to pile up and eventually collapse into new stars, which themselves trigger successive generations.
The new picture shows first-generation stars like Eta Carinae, as well as subsequent generations of descendants across a range of different sizes and ages. (In the image above, dust features appear in red and hot gas in green. Embryonic stars are shown in yellow and white, and foreground stars are blue.) "Now we have a controlled experiment for understanding how one giant gas and dust cloud can produce such a wide variety of stars," says Robert Gehrz of the University of Minnesota. His team announced the finding on Monday, at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Minneapolis.