spaceSpace and Physics

Life Cycle Of Stars Captured In A Single Snapshot


Dr. Alfredo Carpineti

Senior Staff Writer & Space Correspondent

clockNov 22 2016, 18:58 UTC

This image shows both X-ray data from Chandra and radio data from the Submillimeter Array. X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/M.McCollough et al, Radio: ASIAA/SAO/SMA

NASA’s X-ray observatory Chandra has made an incredible observation. In a single image, it was able to capture the birth, middle-age, and after-death state of stars.

The remarkable image is of Cygnus X-3, a very luminous X-ray binary where a compact object (either a black hole or a neutron star) is orbited by a companion. In this case, the companion is a massive star and the compact source is stealing material from it.


In 2003, astronomers discovered a cloud reflecting the X-rays emitted by the pair, but follow-up observations have discovered that the cloud is far from ordinary. Nicknamed “Little Friend”, it is a Bok globule – a small, cold, and dark nebula containing dense gas and dust. Inside Little Friend, which is 0.7 light-years across, a star is forming.

The discovery was only possible with the Submillimeter Array (SMA), a series of eight radio telescope dishes on top of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. The SMA discovered radio jets originating from deep within the cloud, an indication that a protostar is forming and it is pushing material out of Little Friend.

The annotated image shows the X-ray data from Chandra and radio data from the Submillimeter Array. X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/M.McCollough et al, Radio: ASIAA/SAO/SMA


The research, published in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, was conducted by astronomers at the Smithsonian Observatory and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Cygnus X-3 is located about 25,000 light-years from Earth and is a powerhouse both in terms of emitted light and particles. In fact, it’s one of the few sources of ultra-high-energy cosmic rays – 10 to 100 times more energetic than what we can produce in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

For this reason, some scientists believe the compact source within Cygnus X-3 is neither a neutron star nor a black hole, but a more exotic star made of quarks, the fundamental particles that make up protons and neutrons.


There’s still a lot to be discovered about stellar evolution, but it’s nice to see this “generation portrait” of the different stages of a star’s life.

spaceSpace and Physics
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  • Bok globule,

  • Chandra,

  • life cycle,

  • X-ray binary,

  • star evolution