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Last Updated: Friday, 13 February, 2004, 12:13 GMT
A Valentine rose from the Cosmos
By Dr David Whitehouse
BBC News Online science editor

Gas cloud, Nasa
Pretty isn't it?
A telescope in space has sent back a cosmic Valentine picture - a stellar nursery resembling a pink rosebud.

The Spitzer Space Telescope, launched last year, looked at a group of newborn stars embedded in a cloud of gas and dust called a reflection nebula.

"The picture is more than just pretty," says astronomer Thomas Megeath.

"It helps us understand how stars form in the crowded environments of stellar nurseries." Billions of years ago our Sun was born in such a cloud.

False colour

Located some 3,330 light-years away in the constellation Cepheus and spanning 10 light-years across, the rosebud-shaped nebula is home to about 130 young stars.

Previous images of the gas cloud, known as NGC 7129, taken in optical light show a dusting of hot young stars against the luminescent cloud.

The Spitzer telescope, sensitive to infrared radiation, produces a much more detailed view. Highlighted in false colours are the hot dust particles and gases situated around the stars.

The pink rosebud contains adolescent stars that have blown away blankets of hot dust, while the green stem holds newborn stars whose radiation has excited surrounding gas.

Outside of the primary nebula, younger proto-stars can also be seen for the first time. "We can now see a few stars beyond the nebula that were previously hidden in the dark cloud," says Megeath, of the Harvard Smithsonian Center, US.

By analysing the amount and type of infrared light emitted by nearly every star in the cluster, scientists are able to determine which ones support swirling rings of debris, called circumstellar discs, which eventually coalesce to form planets.

These observations will ultimately help astronomers determine how stellar nurseries shape the development of planetary systems similar to our own.

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