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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 February, 2004, 12:53 GMT
New star emerges from dust cocoon
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

Messier 78, McNeil
The new object had not been observed in the gas cloud before
An amateur astronomer in the US has detected the emergence of a young star from the cocoon of gas and dust in which it was born.

Such an event has only rarely been recorded by astronomers.

"This is exciting for all astronomers, especially those interested in the birth of stars," University of Hawaii astronomer Bo Reipurth told the BBC.

"We tend to think of the sky as fixed and unchanging, so when we see something new it's important," he said.

'From my back yard'

The new object was first spotted on 23 January by amateur astronomer Jay McNeil from his observatory at Paducah in Kentucky.

"The entire discovery was quite serendipitous in nature," he told BBC News Online.

While looking at star formation regions in the constellation of Orion, he noticed a star not present in previous sky surveys.

"I have spent countless hours seeking out the darkest of skies and peering into the largest of telescopes at distant galaxies, so who would have known that I would take an image of a famous object with a small telescope from my back yard and find a sun-like star being born."

The new object had appeared alongside the well-known gas cloud known as Messier 78.

Messier 78, Mauna Kea
The new object appeared in the well known cloud Messier 78
"The new object was just a faint smudge. I contacted Brian Skiff at the Lowell Observatory who also realised it was new," says McNeil.

Suspecting that it was a young star that had just broken out of its birth cloud of gas and dust, McNeil then contacted star formation expert Bo Reipurth.

Reipurth arranged for follow-up observations to be carried out using the University of Hawaii 2.2 metre telescope, and then using the giant 8-metre Gemini telescope, also in Hawaii.

McNeil was amazed at the train of events following his discovery, "The idea that this thing, first seen on my 3-inch telescope, which one can easily hold using one hand, would be observed, within 48 hours, by a telescope of 342 tons was absolutely staggering."

Stellar landscape

Following those observations Reipurth told BBC News Online: "The young star was embedded in its placental nebula. Now it has brightened, and like a lighthouse it is casting its light across the landscape of dust and gas around it."

"We know of many small nebula like this scattered throughout the sky but it is very rare to see an event like this. We know very little about these objects and do not know what to expect next."

An urgent appeal has gone out to astronomers to monitor the object which is now known as McNeil's nebula.

"We will lose it in about six weeks when Orion goes behind the Sun. We will then have to wait until the autumn for it to be observable again. I expect it will have changed by then," says Reipurth.

"I'm thrilled to have found it and to be a part of such a great effort," says McNeil.

Hubble observes early starbirth
30 Oct 03  |  Science/Nature
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21 Jul 03  |  Science/Nature
'Failed star' found nearby
15 Jan 03  |  Science/Nature

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