Small Region of Sky Source of Mysterious, Energetic Blasts

Astronomers have identified source as a supermassive, unknown star cluster containing some of the most massive stars in the Milky Way 

Hidden within the region inset in the small square lie some of the rarest, most massive stars in the galaxy.
Hidden within the region inset in the small square lie some of the rarest, most massive stars in the galaxy. More than a dozen red supergiant stars. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

Space news (unknown X-ray and gamma-ray sources) – 2/3 of the way to the core of the Milky Way or 18,900 light-years (5,800 parsecs) from Earth toward the constellation Scutum in the Bermuda Triangle of the Milky Way – 

For years, astronomers studied a small region of the sky called the Bermuda Triangle known for mysterious, highly energetic blasts of X-rays and gamma rays looking for clues to the source. The identity of the source was finally determined around 2005 as an unknown, hefty star cluster containing some of the rarest and most massive stars in the Milky Way. More than a dozen red supergiant stars, supermassive stars that are destroyed when a star goes supernova, within a million years time.  

This color composite image compiled by the Spitzer Space Telescope highlights the colors of the cosmos. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI
This color composite image compiled by the Spitzer Space Telescope highlights the dazzling color palette of the cosmos. Credit: NASA/ESA/STScI

Astronomers detected 14 gigantic, red supergiant stars bloated to beyond 100 times their original size hidden within a star cluster estimated to be over 20 times the average size. Their outer envelopes of hydrogen bloated to beyond bursting, these behemoth stars are destined to end their days in one of the most energetic events in the cosmos a supernova. Destined to spread the elements of creation throughout the galaxy in a titanic explosion more energetic than the output of the entire Milky Way. 

“Only the most massive clusters can have lots of red supergiants because they are the only clusters capable of making behemoth stars,” explains Don Figer led scientists for the study. “They are good signposts that allow astronomers to predict the mass of the cluster. This observation also is a rare chance to study huge stars just before they explode. Normally, we don’t get to see stars before they pop off.” 

This very colorful artist's impression of the stars within this unknown star cluster. CreditNASA/ESA/STScI
This very colorful artist’s impression of the 14 red supergiant stars within this unknown star cluster. CreditNASA/ESA/STScI

What’s next for the team?

Red supergiant stars were indeed rare during the human journey to the beginning of space and time. Only about 200 such titanic stars have been identified among the hundreds of millions detected in the Milky Way. Finding 14 of these behemoth stars relatively close to Earth is an opportunity for astronomers to study their life cycle in greater detail. An opportunity Figer and his team at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore plan on taking full advantage of during the years ahead. 

At the same time, Figer and his team of space scientists plan on studying an additional 130 supermassive star cluster candidates from the newly found clusters compiled in the Two Micron All Sky Survey catalog. “We can only see a small part of our galaxy in visible light because a dusty veil covers most of our galaxy,” Figer said. “I know there are other massive clusters in the Milky Way that we can’t see because of the dust. My goal is to find them using infrared light, which penetrates the dusty veil.” 

“Mysterious X-ray and gamma ray source explained!” 

“Now, we search for new cosmic mysteries to unveil!”

Take the space journey of NASA

Learn more about the Milky Way here

Discover the constellation Scutum

Learn more about the Space Telescope Science Institute here

Discover things about star clusters here

Take the space voyage of the Hubble Space Telescope here.

Learn more about red supergiant stars

Read about the Nuclear Star Cluster, the Milky Way’s densest star cluster.

Learn more about the giant star blowing a huge bubble of gas.

Read about astronomers discovering superstar binary systems like Eta Carinae are more common than first thought.

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