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Star Factory

May 2, 2013

Our stellar neighborhood is pretty quiet — most of the nearby stars are mature and sedate. But you don’t have to go all that far to reach an area that’s abuzz with activity — an area where new stars are being born at a prodigious rate.

Westerhout 3 is a complex of star clusters that’s about 6500 light-years away. It contains thousands of stars that are no more than a couple of million years old, including many that are just thousands of years old. And there’s plenty of gas and dust to give birth to thousands more stars.

What’s more, W3 is next door to a couple of other star clusters where the stars are just a few million years old.

Quite a few of the stars in W3 and its neighbors are among the biggest and brightest classes of stars. Winds from these stars compress surrounding clouds of gas and dust, triggering the birth of more stars. But the winds also clear out some of the stuff around them, reducing the supply of raw materials to make more stars.

Many of the stars in W3 are so young that they’re still surrounded by cocoons of dust. These cocoons may be giving birth to new planets. And if any planets have already taken shape, they would have spectacular night skies — ablaze with the splendor of newborn stars.

W3 is in the constellation Cassiopeia, the queen. Although W3 isn’t visible to the unaided eye, Cassiopeia’s brightest stars form a letter W that’s low in the north at nightfall, and wheels up the northeast during the night.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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