A new image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope tells a tale of life and death amidst a rich family history. The striking infrared picture shows a colorful cosmic cloud, called W5, studded with multiple generations of blazing stars. It also provides dramatic new evidence that massive stars — through their brute winds and radiation — can trigger the birth of stellar newborns. The most massive stars in the universe form out of thick clouds of gas and dust. The stars are so massive, ranging from 15 to about 60 times the mass of our sun, that some of their material slides off in the form of winds. The scorching-hot stars also blaze with intense radiation. Over time, both the wind and radiation blast away surrounding cloud material, carving out expanding cavities.
Astronomers have long suspected that the carving of these cavities causes gas to compress into successive generations of new stars. As the cavities grow, it is believed that more and more stars arise along the cavities’ expanding rims. The result is a radial “family tree” of stars, with the oldest in the middle of the cavity, and younger and younger stars farther out. Evidence for this theory can be seen easily in pictures of many star-forming regions, such as W5, Orion and Carina. For example, in the new Spitzer picture of W5, the most massive stars (some of the blue dots) are at the center of two hollow cavities, and younger stars (pink or white) are embedded in the elephant-trunk-like pillars as well as beyond the cavity rim. However, it is possible that the younger stars just happen to be near the edge of the cavities and were not triggered by the massive stars. Millions of years from now, the massive stars in W5 will die in tremendous explosions. When they do, they will destroy some of the young nearby stars — the same stars they might have triggered into being. W5 spans an area of sky equivalent to four full moons and is about 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. The Spitzer picture was taken over a period of 24 hours. The color red shows heated dust that pervades the region’s cavities. Green highlights the dense clouds, and white knotty areas are where the youngest of stars are forming. The blue dots are older stars in the star-forming cloud, as well as unrelated stars behind and in front of the cloud.