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Friday, July 24, 1998 Published at 11:51 GMT 12:51 UK


More light shed by Hubble

A stellar nursery in another galaxy

A picture taken of a nearby star cluster is yielding insights into the evolution of the early universe. Our Science Editor David Whitehouse reports.

The Hubble Space Telescope has taken a remarkable image of young, hot stars nestled in an embryonic cloud of glowing gases.

The stellar nursery, called N81, is located 200,000 light- years away in the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), an outrigger galaxy of our Milky Way.

According to astronomers the cloud offers a unique opportunity for a close-up view of the "starburst firestorm" that accompanies the birth of massive stars, each brighter than 300,000 of our suns.

Such galactic fireworks were much more common billions of years ago in the early universe, when most stars were formed.

[ image: Close-up of young massive stars]
Close-up of young massive stars
"This is giving us new insights into star formation in far away galaxies that existed long ago," said Mohammad Heydari-Malayeri, the head of the international team of astronomers which made the discovery using Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2.

The details that the Hubble Space Telescope can see allows astronomers to pinpoint 50 separate stars tightly packed in the nebula's core within a 10 light-year diameter - slightly more than twice the distance between earth and the nearest star to our sun. The closest pair of stars is only a third of a light-year apart.

These observations show that massive stars may form in groups. "As a result, it is more likely some of these stars are members of double and multiple star systems," added Heydari-Malayeri.

The Hubble picture reveals dramatic shapes sculpted in the nebula's wall of glowing gases by violent stellar winds and shock waves.

Before the Hubble observations, N81 was simply dubbed "The Blob" because its features were indistinguishable in ground-based telescopes.

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