Barnard 68 is a large, dense cloud of cold gas and dust in the constellation Ophiuchus. The dust absorbs the light of the stars behind it, creating an apparent void in the heavens. However, infrared light penetrates the cloud (right), showing astronomers what lies beyond. Barnard 68 may someday collapse to give birth to new stars. [FORS Team/VLT Antu/ESO; ESO]
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Bright orange Antares, the brightest light of Scorpius, the scorpion, rolls across the sky on summer evenings. The beautiful star is low in the south as night falls, and sets in the wee hours of the morning.
Not far to the left of Antares, in the adjoining constellation Ophiuchus, there’s something you can’t see with the unaided eye — at least not yet. But recent observations suggest this dark cloud of gas and dust has a bright future.
Barnard 68 is about twice as massive as the Sun. In photographs, it looks like a black ink spot against the stars of the Milky Way. The dark cloud is 300 to 500 light-years from Earth.
Astronomers have long debated whether this cloud would give birth to a star. In 2009, one group said it would. They said that Barnard 68 was really two clouds that were ramming together. The collision would cause Barnard 68 to collapse and form a star.
And recent observations with Herschel Space Telescope indicate that this theory might be right. Herschel studied far-infrared radiation, which is invisible to the human eye. But it reveals great detail about these dark clouds. The observations show that Barnard 68 really is two separate clouds.
If the smaller cloud is hitting the main cloud, the impact will cause the clouds to collapse. As that happens the gas will heat up, because compressing a gas makes it warmer. Eventually the gas will get so hot that it will begin to glow — and a new star will take its place in the heavens.
Script by Ken Croswell, Copyright 2013