The star IRAS 19312+1950 might not have a fancy name, but it is a puzzle astronomers have been trying to solve for many years.
The star was originally classified as an old red giant, but a new study led by Martin Cordiner from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center suggests quite the opposite: The object is a protostar, a star still in the making.
“Astronomers recognized this object as noteworthy around the year 2000 and have been trying ever since to decide how far along its development is,” said Cordiner in a statement. “We think the star is probably in an embryonic stage, getting near the end of its accretion stage – the period when it pulls in new material to fuel its growth.”
IRAS 19312+1950 is a massive (10 times the mass of the Sun), oxygen-rich object, located 12,000 light-years from Earth. There were several clues indicating its advanced age.
The object was spotted emitting two types of masers, powerful radio beacons that are physically the microwave equivalent of a laser. These masers are generated by excited molecules emitting radiation at very specific frequencies. The masers associated with IRAS 19312+1950 are generated by silicon-oxide and hydroxide molecules, both nearly always seen around old stars.
But when Cordiner and his colleagues looked at the star using ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory, they found the telltale signs of a baby star.
IRAS 19312+1950 is surrounded by a large cloud that's rich in chemicals typical of stellar nurseries. Although no nurseries were spotted around, astronomers know that sometimes stars form in the middle of nowhere.
In their paper, published in the Astrophysical Journal, the scientists have combined the Herschel observation with data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. They were able to spot powerful winds coming from the star and ice grains very near the star. These would not be found in older objects.
Young or old, IRAS 19312+1950 is not your average object, with researchers still unsure how such a young object sports the maser features.
Steven Charnley, co-author of the paper, added: “No matter how one looks at this object, it’s fascinating, and it has something new to tell us about the life cycles of stars.”