Six new stars are born amid gas and dust

The right-hand frame here contains not one star, but seven - though the dimmer six are all the offspring of the larger, central one. New pictures from the Hubble space telescope, using its infrared camera, have provided scientists with direct evidence that huge stars can throw off enough dust and gas to create "baby" stars, visible here as the six fainter dots in the picture.

The right-hand frame is an enlargement of a tiny area of the left, which lies in the Cone Nebula, 2,500 light years away from Earth in the constellation Monoceros.

The main star itself is called NGC 2264 IRS, though it cannot be seen in the left-hand picture because of obscuring dust in its path. But with infrared imaging, the central star is more apparent.

Scientists call the starbirth visible here "triggered" star formation, and happens when a gale of high-speed particles from a young, massive star compresses nearby dust and gas until it becomes dense enough to trigger the formation of a star, or stars. Usually stars form by the gradual collection of dust and gas due to gravity, until the combined mass sparks fusion in its core. Normally, individual stars would be many light years away: the nearest to Earth is almost five light years distant. However, these "offspring" stars are just 0.04 to 0.08 light years from the central mother. The pictures were analysed by astronomers at the University of Arizona and Nasa.

The rings around the star are not part of the image, but caused by diffraction effects from the point-like sources of light.