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.