Trifid Stars

StarDate: June 30, 2009

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The life of one person can make a big difference in the lives of many others. It turns out that the same thing is true for stars.

An example is in the Trifid Nebula, a glowing cloud of gas and dust in the constellation Sagittarius. A young star at the center of the nebula is triggering the formation of more than a hundred other stars.

The central star is much more massive than the Sun. It produces an intense "wind" of charged particles. As the wind hits the surrounding gas and dust, it squeezes it, causing it to clump together to form new stars.

A few years ago, Spitzer Space Telescope conducted the first good survey of these stars. The telescope looks at infrared energy, which is easiest to see from above Earth's atmosphere.

Spitzer found that the nebula contains about 30 stars that are at least 10 times as massive as the Sun. Like the central star, they're extremely hot. And they'll live short lives -- in the millions of years, not the billions of years for stars like the Sun. Spitzer also found more than a hundred smaller newborn stars at the edges of the nebula.

The Trifid Nebula is in Sagittarius, which is low in the southeast in early evening. Its brightest stars form a teapot shape. The Trifid is just above the spout of the teapot. Photographs of the nebula show three blobs of gas, colored red and blue. The entire complex is lit up by the star at its center -- a star that's making a difference.

Script by Damond Benningfield

For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.

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