New space survey uncovers hidden dance of stellar nurseries

A huge European Space Organisation survey has gathered more than a million images of five stellar nurseries, revealing the secret lives of young stars in the making.

“In these images we can detect even the faintest sources of light, like stars far less massive than the Sun, revealing objects that no one has ever seen before,” says Stefan Meingast, a University of Vienna astronomer and lead author of the new study.

“This will allow us to understand the processes that transform gas and dust into stars.”

The survey, called VISIONS has been undertaken by the VISTA telescope in Chile using infrared to peer deep into molecular clouds.

“The dust obscures these young stars from our view, making them virtually invisible to our eyes. Only at infrared wavelengths can we look deep into these clouds, studying the stars in the making,” explains Alena Rottensteiner, another University of Vienna astronomer.

The paper, published in the paper Astronomy & Astrophysics looked at five nearby stellar nurseries – in the constellations of Chamaeleon, Corona Australis, Lupus, Ophiuchus, and Orion – for five years.

The VISION data provides scientists not only with more information on how these proto-stars look, but also how they change over time – a type of cosmic dance as they age.

“With VISIONS we monitor these baby stars over several years, allowing us to measure their motion and learn how they leave their parent clouds,” explains João Alves, Principal Investigator of VISIONS.

However, this was a difficult job, as the apparent shift of these stars as seen from Earth is as small as the width of a human hair seen from 10 kilometres away.

Although the survey is done, researchers will be able to pour over this data for years to come. It will hopefully help answer questions about how stars are born out of clouds, and how many stars will also have planets.

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“The main objective of VISIONS is to establish a legacy near-infrared archive that will allow the community to improve our understanding of the process of star formation,” the team write in the paper.

“VISIONS will facilitate addressing a range of scientific topics, including the determination of the kinematics of embedded objects down to substellar masses.”

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