Galaxy Takes Baby Stars Under Colorful Wing

The star-forming region NGC 602 inside the "Wing" of the nearby Small Magellanic Cloud (click to enlarge).
X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ.Potsdam/L.Oskinova et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This might look like a painting of a fantasy star scene but it's actually a very real image from three of the world's most advanced space telescopes.

Combining data from Hubble, Spitzer, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory, this brilliant and colorful image shows young stars within the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way located 180,000 light-years away.

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The Small Magellanic Cloud (or SMC for short) is a dwarf galaxy full of bright stars, so bright that it's easily visible with the naked eye from the southern hemisphere. The image above takes a close look into a region of the SMC known as the "Wing", where sun-sized stars can be observed soon after their formations within regions that are markedly lacking in heavy elements -- similar conditions to what would have been found in the early Universe.

A cluster of "young stellar objects" only a few thousand years old found within NGC 602.
X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ.Potsdam/L.Oskinova et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Take a virtual tour of the star-forming region in the Wing, known as NGC 602, here.

Using Chandra's x-ray vision researchers have been able to pick out emissions from magnetically-active young stars in the Wing, indicating that even though they formed in different stellar environments than those found inside our galaxy, they do have similar x-ray outputs.

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X-ray emissions from stars are created by their magnetic activity, which is in turn powered by their rotation, the motion of their cores, and convection throughout their internal layers.

If stars that formed in different environments outside our galaxy are seen to have similar x-ray signatures as those found within, then they may have other similar features as well -- such as the potential to develop circumstellar disks of possible planet-forming materials.

A paper outlining these findings was published in the March 1 issue of The Astrophysical Journal. You can find the international team's paper here, and read more on the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics' Chandra mission site.

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