Scientists Capture Beautiful, Explosive Collision of Young Stars

The high-resolution images could hold clues about the early stages of star formation

ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), J. Bally; B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF); Gemini Observatory/AURA

When a star dies, it erupts with a massive, fiery blast known as a supernova. But the beginning of a star’s life may be just as dramatic. As Matt McGrath reports for the BBC, scientists have captured images of an interstellar explosion that occurred when several adolescent protostars collided, causing a rainbow-colored burst of cosmic fireworks. 

Around 100,000 years ago, the stars began to form within the Orion Molecular Cloud 1 (OMC-1), a dense stellar nursery located some 1,500 light years from Earth. The young stars were gradually pulled together by gravity until about 500 years ago, when they either grazed each other or collided. This contact triggered a forceful explosion that hurled streams of dust, gas, and other protostars into interstellar space at speeds over 90 miles per second, according to a statement from the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). The eruption released as much energy as the sun would emit over the course of 10 million years.

As Samantha Mathewson writes in Space, this type of explosion is visible for a relatively short period of time, with debris lasting for just a few centuries. Astronomers first noticed hints of the OMC-1 eruption in 2009. More recently, they used a powerful observatory known as the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to capture high-resolution images of the cataclysmic event. The new images revealed “a cosmic version of a fourth of July fireworks display, with giant streamers rocketing off in all directions,” Professor John Bally of the University of Colorado said in the NRAO statement.

The pictures aren’t just pretty. ALMA is helping scientists understand the distribution and high-velocity motion of carbon monoxide inside the huge streamers, according to a press release. This in turn can shed light on the force of the blast and the effects of such explosions on star formation throughout the galaxy.

In a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal, researchers note that “Orion-like events may … be relatively common in massive star forming complexes, occurring one or more times during the birth of a massive star.” The ALMA images, in other words, offer new and detailed information about the violent, beautiful eruptions that occur when a star is born.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.