In the center of this image is IRS 2, an exceptionally bright, hot object in a massive cluster of stars known as RCW 38, some 5,500 light-years away in the southern constellation Vela. Researchers using the Very Large Telescope in Chile have now determined IRS 2 to be a binary system, a pair of stars separated by about 500 times the distance between Earth and the sun. The research team presents its findings in the July issue of the Astronomical Journal.

The sizzling duo, about seven or eight times as hot as the sun, dominates its neighborhood. A nearby star features a comet-like tail that could be the outer reaches of a protoplanetary disk evaporating under the intense ultraviolet radiation from IRS 2. Studying extreme regions such as that surrounding IRS 2 can show how that evaporation affects disks of planetary material. "Such knowledge," the new study's authors write, "will help to constrain the conditions that are necessary for those disks to evolve into planets."