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Hubble spots light-year long ‘cosmic caterpillar’ of interstellar gas and dust

According to a NASA news release, the space agency’s Hubble Space Telescope has spotted a light-year long “cosmic caterpillar” of interstellar gas and dust. NASA points out that the most interesting detail revealed by Hubble data is what’s “sculpting” this “wanna-be” star. According to the space agency, rough winds from very bright stars are firing ultraviolet radiation at the cosmic caterpillar and molding the gas and dust into its light-year long structure.

The responsible party is a group of 65 of the hottest, brightest known stars, categorized as O-type stars, residing 15 light-years away from the cosmic caterpillar (they can be seen towards the right edge of the image above). This group of stars, as well as 500 less bright B-type stars, create what is known as the Cygnus OB2 association. All together, the association is believed to have a mass more than 30,000 times that of the Sun.

The cosmic caterpillar, referred to as IRAS 20324+4057, is a protostar in a extremely early evolutionary stage. In fact, it is still in the process of gathering material from an enclosure of gas circling it. However, this enclosure is being worn away by the radiation from the Cygnus OB2 association. Eventually, IRAS 20324+4057 will become a young star with a mass of approximately one to ten times that of the Sun. However, if the radiation from the Cygnus OB2 association annihilates the gas enclosure before the cosmic caterpillar concludes its accumulation of mass, its final mass may be less than expected.

Hubble data on the central star within the cosmic caterpillar reveal that it is still gathering a lot of material from its outer envelope, wishing to add extra mass. In time, astronomers will be able to determine how well the protostar weathered the ultraviolet radiation from the Cygnus OB2 association. Will the formed star be a “heavy-weight” or a “light-weight?”

According to the space agency, the above image of the cosmic caterpillar is a composite of Hubble Advanced Camera for Surveys data obtained in green and infrared light in 2006, and ground-based hydrogen data from the Isaac Newton Telescope in 2003. IRAS 20324+4057 resides 4,500 light-years away from Earth.

According to NASA, the Space Shuttle Discovery blasted off from Earth with Hubble on April 24, 1990. On April 25, Hubble was released into space, prepared to look into the vast unknown of space, giving astronomers an extra set of eyes to help describe distant cosmic regions yet to be observed.

What’s your favorite Hubble picture? Sound off in the comments section.