Star spangled nebula

Spitzer image of the North American Nebula

This new Spitzer Space Telescope infrared image of the North American Nebula reveals a multitude of young stars, ordinarily hidden in visible wavelength images by veils of dust.

  • Nebula shaped like the North American continent
  • Infrared view pierces the veil of dust, revealing stars
  • Thousands of young stars seen in Spitzer telescope image

STARS AT ALL STAGES of development, from dusty little tots to young adults, are on display in a new image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

This cosmic community is called the North American Nebula. At visible light wavelength pictures, the region resembles the North American continent, with the most striking resemblance being the Gulf of Mexico.

But in Spitzer’s infrared view, the continent disappears. Instead, a swirling landscape of dust and young stars comes into view.

“One of the things that makes me so excited about this image is how different it is from the visible image, and how much more we can see in the infrared than in the visible,” said Luisa Rebull of NASA’s Spitzer Science Centre at the California Institute of Technology.

Rebull is lead author of a paper about the observations, accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series.

“The Spitzer image reveals a wealth of detail about the dust and the young stars here.”

Dusty environment

Rebull and her team have identified more than 2,000 new, candidate young stars in the region. There were only about 200 known before.

Because young stars grow up surrounded by blankets of dust, they are hidden in visible-light images. Spitzer’s infrared detectors pick up the glow of the dusty, buried stars.

Visible and infrared views of the North American Nebula

Spot the difference. Visible light (left) and infrared wavelength (right) views of the North American Nebula, taken by the Digitised Sky Survey and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, respectively. Infrared can see through the dust and gas.

A star is born inside a collapsing ball of gas and dust. As the material collapses inward, it flattens out into a disc that spins around together with the forming star like a spinning top. Jets of gas shoot perpendicularly away from the disc, above and below it.

As the star ages, planets are thought to form out of the disc—material clumps together, ultimately growing into mature planets. Eventually, most of the dust dissipates, aside from a tenuous ring similar to the one in our Solar System, referred to as Zodiacal dust.

Family portrait

The new Spitzer image reveals all the stages of a star’s young life, from the early years when it is swaddled in dust to early adulthood, when it has become a young parent to a family of developing planets. Sprightly “toddler” stars with jets can also be identified in Spitzer’s view.

“This is a really busy area to image, with stars everywhere, from the North American complex itself, as well as in front of and behind the region,” said Rebull.

Young stars in the "Gulf of Mexico" part of the North American Nebula

A cluster of young stars in the "Gulf of Mexico," part of the North American Nebula.

“We refer to the stars that are not associated with the region as contamination,” Rebull added. “With Spitzer, we can easily sort this contamination out and clearly distinguish between the young stars in the complex and the older ones that are unrelated.”

See the full-size image here.

More mysteries to solve

The North American Nebula still has a mystery surrounding it, involving its power source. Nobody has been able to identify the group of massive stars that is thought to be dominating and illuminating the nebula.

The Spitzer image, like images from other telescopes, hints that the missing stars are lurking behind the Gulf of Mexico portion of the nebula. This is evident from the illumination pattern of the nebula, especially when viewed with the detector on Spitzer that picks up 24-micron infrared light. That light appears to be coming from behind the Gulf of Mexico’s dark tangle of clouds, in the same way that sunlight creeps out from behind a rain cloud.

The nebula’s distance from Earth is also a mystery. Current estimates put it at about 1,800 light-years from Earth.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech. Images courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / L. Rebull (SSC / Caltech).

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