The objects were found by scientists who pieced together more than one million images taken from the European Southern Observatory’s Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (Vista) and pieced them into vast mosaics.
That atlas of the stars show young stars as they are being born, surrounded by thick clouds of dust.
As well as making for spectacular images, the observations could help scientists solve the mysteries of how stars are born.
“In these images we can detect even the faintest sources of light, like stars far less massive than the Sun, revealing objects that no one has ever seen before,” says Stefan Meingast, an astronomer at the University of Vienna in Austria and lead author on the new study.
“This will allow us to understand the processes that transform gas and dust into stars.”
Stars form when clouds of gas and dust fall apart under their own gravity. But those same clouds mean that it is hard to observe that process, and much of it remains unknown – such as how many stars might come out of one cloud, and how many of those will get their own planets.
To see that process better, astronomers used the European Southern Observatory’s telescope to capture light from within that dust, in infrared. By using those infrared wavelengths, scientists are able to make visible what is normally hidden from view.
Over a period of five years, they examined five nearby star-forming regions and gathered more than a million images. They were then stuck together into large mosaics, so that the whole landscape could be viewed in detail.
Because the areas were seen a number of times over a relatively long period, the atlas shows not just the placement of stars but their movements, and could help astronomers learn how young stars travel around. The data can show how baby stars leave their parent clouds and what happens to them as they do.
It will also serve as the foundation for further work, including observations from the ESO’s Extremely Large Telescope, which is being built now. “The ELT will allow us to zoom into specific regions with unprecedented detail, giving us a never-seen-before close-up view of individual stars that are currently forming there,” said Meingast.
An article describing the work, ‘VISIONS: The VISTA Star Formation Atlas’, is being published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics.
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