The birth of a star, captured in stunning detail [photos]

<i> This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details. </i>

Astronomers have captured stunning images of a star in the process of being born, and they are as beautiful as they are counterintuitive.

In the images above, you are not seeing the young star itself, but rather massive jets of gases such as carbon monoxide and ionized oxygen that are shooting away from the forming star at speeds of up to 1 million kilometers per hour (about 621,000 mph).

When these gas jets crash into the material surrounding the protostar, they begin to glow, creating what is known as the Herbig-Haro effect.

What you are looking at above is known as Herbig-Haro 46/47, and it is located in the southern constellation of Vela, 1,400 light-years from Earth.

Newly forming stars send out large jets of gas, even as they pull gas and other matter toward them in the process of their formation, explained Hector Arce, an associate professor at Yale University and the lead author of a new study about Herbig-Haro 46/47 that will be published in the Astrophysical Journal.


The outflows are caused as the magnetic field of the protostar interacts with the magnetic fields of the thin disk of material that surrounds it, he said.

“The material in the disk spirals toward the star, and when it gets to be a certain distance away most of it goes to the protostar to help it grow,” he said. “But a fraction of that material is launched into an outflow, usually along the magnetic poles of the protostar.”

In the image above, you can see the pink and purple jets of gas being ejected toward Earth, while the orange and green gas is jetting away from Earth.

Black holes and fully formed stars also have outflows of gas and material, Arce said.

Though Herbig-Haro 46/47 has been imaged many times, the pictures above represent the first time it was imaged by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, known as ALMA, a new and extremely powerful telescope array in Chile that will help scientists study and better understand molecular outflows in space.

The new images--which include data from ALMA and from less powerful visible-light telescopes--were created while ALMA was under construction, but still offer a more detailed look at the outflows around the protostar, including the first clear look at the outflow jet that is moving away from Earth.

In previous images, this jet was almost invisible because of a large cloud of dust and gas that visible light could not penetrate.

[For the Record, 8:56 a.m., Aug. 24:Hector Arce’s last name was misspelled in earlier versions of this post. It has since been corrected.]