Strangely glowing, floating dark clouds are silhouetted against nearby bright stars in a busy star-forming region viewed by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope.
The image showing dense, opaque dust clouds—known as globulesh—in the star-forming region IC 2944 is available online at http://heritage.stsci.edu/2002/01/ or http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2002/01/image/a/. It was taken by Hubble's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2, designed and built by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
Little is known about the origin and nature of these globules in IC 2944, which were first found by astronomer A.D. Thackeray in 1950. Globules are generally associated with large hydrogen-emitting star-formation regions, which give off the glowing light of hydrogen gas.
The largest globule in this image consists of two separate clouds that gently overlap along our line of sight. Each cloud is nearly 1.4 light-years along its longest dimension. Collectively, they contain enough material to equal more than 15 times the mass of our Sun. The surrounding hydrogen-rich region, IC 2944, is filled with gas and dust illuminated and heated by a loose cluster of stars that are much hotter and more massive than our Sun. IC 2944 is relatively close by, only 5,900 light-years away in the constellation Centaurus.
Using the remarkable resolution of Hubble, astronomers can for the first time study the intricate structure of these globules. They appear to be heavily fractured, as if major forces were tearing them apart. When radio astronomers observed the faint hiss of molecules within the globules, they realized that the globules are actually in constant, churning motion, moving supersonically among each other. This may be caused by powerful ultraviolet radiation from the luminous, massive stars, which heat up hydrogen gas in the region. The gas expands and streams against the globules, leading to their destruction. Despite their serene appearance, the globules may actually be likened to clumps of butter put into a red-hot pan.
The globules are most likely dense clumps of gas and dust that existed before the hot, massive stars were born. But once the stars began to irradiate and destroy their surroundings, the clumps became visible when their less dense surroundings were eroded away. This exposed them to the full brunt of the ultraviolet radiation and the expanding hydrogen-rich region. The new images catch a glimpse of the process of destruction.
The hydrogen-emission image that clearly shows the outline of the dark globules was taken with Hubble's camera in February 1999 by Bo Reipurth, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, and collaborators. Additional broadband images that helped to establish the true color of the stars in the field were taken by the Hubble Heritage Team in February 2001. The composite result is a four-color image.
The Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., for NASA under contract with the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between the European Space Agency and NASA. The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena manages JPL for NASA.