A colossal star many times the mass of our own Sun is seen growing in a bubble of gas and dust just pictured by the Herschel space observatory.
The image of the bubble, known as RCW 120, has been released a few days ahead of the European telescope’s first birthday in orbit on 14 May.
Herschel’s infrared detectors are tuned to see the cold materials that give birth to stars.
Pictures like RCW 120 will help explain how really giant ones are made.
The monster in this picture is seen as the white blob on the bottom edge of the bubble.
The "baby" star is already some eight to 10 times the mass of our Sun but is surrounded by about 200 times as much material.
If more of that gas and dust continues to fall in on the star, the object has the potential to become one of the Milky Way Galaxy’s true giants.
Present theories of star formation struggle to explain how objects larger than about 10 solar masses can exist. The fierce light they emit should blast away their birth clouds, limiting their growth.
And yet, astronomers know of stars that are 150 times the mass of our Sun.
The unique capabilities of Herschel – it works in the far-infrared and sub-millimetre range (55 to 672 microns) – mean it can see physical processes that are beyond the vision of other telescopes.
Hubble, for example, which senses visible and near-infrared light, is blind to the details in this picture.
Scientists hope Herschel’s vision can give them the information they need to correct their models.
The European Space Agency’s billion-euro observatory was sent into orbit a year ago on an Ariane rocket.
It is positioned far from Earth to give it an unobstructed view of deep space.
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