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Thursday, 16 March, 2000, 15:48 GMT
Young stars in cosmic dance
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

A trio of newborn stars, 1,400 light-years distant, are engaged in a complex dance revealed by Nasa's Hubble Space Telescope (HST). Two are now closely embracing, while the third has been thrown from their company.

A pair of long jets of gas blast into space
The new HST images are made in infrared light. When they are combined with ground-based radio observations, they reveal three young stars embedded in a vast cloud of gas and dust, out of which they were born.

What is puzzling to astronomers is that the stars are not located at the centre of this doughnut. Instead, a pair of the stars is offset to one side, while the third star is on the other side.

This is odd because newborn stars are normally found precisely in the centres of such placental clouds.

Giant jets

One of the pair of stars is the origin of two huge jets of gas blasted into space. Each of the jets is huge, 12 light-years long, which is three times the distance between our Sun and the nearest star.

"It's mind-boggling that small stars like this can have such a profound influence on their environment," says Bo Reipurth of the University of Colorado, who headed the research team that photographed the region with HST's infrared and visible-light cameras.

It appears that a gravitational interaction between the three stars occurred a few thousand years ago and kicked out one of them. As a result, the two other stars were joined together as a tight binary pair and flew off in the opposite direction.

Computer simulations

Computer simulations of three-body stellar interactions support such a scenario. But, future observations to directly measure the motions of the stars will be needed to confirm this conclusion.

The components of the binary star are so close to each other - within five billion miles - that even Hubble does not resolve them. But the radio observations, with the Very Large Array in New Mexico, show two pairs of stellar jets almost at right angles.

This implies that what appears in the HST images as a single object really is two separate stars, each of which drives an outflow of oppositely directed jets.

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