The Hubble Space Telescope has imaged a cosmic double-bladed lightsabre-like phenomenon emanating from the heart of a young star.
In a lighthearted gesture, the European Space Agency and NASA released images of the huge energised jets in time for the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. But the star is not in a galaxy far, far away, but relatively nearby – at least in our own galaxy, the Milky Way.
It resides within a turbulent patch of space known as the Orion B molecular cloud complex in the constellation of Orion.
It might be considered to long, long ago, however, as the star is more than 1,350 light-years away, so we are seeing the phenomenon as it appeared more than a millennium ago.
The spectacular twin jets of material spew out from a newly formed star that is cloaked by swirling dust and gas.
When stars form within giant, gaseous clouds, some of the surrounding material collapses down to form a rotating, flattened disc encircling the nascent stars, which are known as protostars. This disc is where a potential planetary system might form.
The Force is strong with these twin jets, too. As they stream away from one another, supersonic shock fronts heat the surrounding gas to thousands of degrees. And as the jets collide with the surrounding gas and dust and clear vast spaces, they create curved shock waves. These show up in Herbig-Haro (HH) objects, tangled, knotted clumps of gas and dust. The prominent Herbig-Haro object shown in this image is HH 24.
Just to the right of the cloaked star, a couple of bright points of light can be seen. These are young stars peeking through and showing off their own faint lightsabres. One hidden, cloaked source, only detectable in the radio part of the spectrum, has blasted a tunnel through the dark cloud in the upper left of the image with a wider outflow resembling “force lightning”.
All these jets make HH 24 the densest concentration of HH jets known in such a small region. Half of the HH jets have been spotted in this region in visible light, and about the same number in the infrared. Hubble’s observations for this image were performed in infrared light, which enabled the telescope to pierce through the gas and dust cocooning the newly-forming stars and capture a clear view of the HH objects that astronomers are looking for.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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