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The Sciences

Star Breeding Grounds

In the right circumstances, humble gas and dust can form into powerful, majestic stars.

star.jpg
Courtesy of NASA/JPL Caltech/WISE Team

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Vast clouds of star-forming gas and dust burst into view in this image of the constellations Cassiopeia and Cepheus, taken by the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer satellite, or WISE. Space-based infrared telescopes like WISE allow astronomers to see past the hot, bright stars that dominate visible-light images and probe the subtle, cold regions of gas and dust where stars are born. The most frigid stuff, which can be –280 degrees Fahrenheit, appears red here; warmer objects look bluer. Prolific stellar nurseries, marked by gray and white clouds surrounding red stars, are located at the top left and top right of the image. WISE scanned the whole sky 1.5 times before running out of coolant in February 2011, but the data it beamed back continues to reveal our galaxy’s hidden spawning grounds. “WISE is not the greatest telescope ever built,” says astrophysicist Xavier Koenig of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, “but it lets you see everything.”

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